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The Long Ethical Arc of Displaying Human Remains

People have long held a morbid curiosity about dead bodies, from public hangings to modern day exhibits like Body Worlds. Through our history, sideshows and museums alike put human remains on display, the only real difference between them being the stated reason: entertainment on one side and education on the other, with the wishes of the deceased and their descendants ignored. Most of the time. Only recently have the dominant societies of the world turned to respecting cultural beliefs about burial, with spotty results. Why do we continue to display Egyptian mummies when the practice of displaying Native American remains is no longer accepted? It all appears to come down to whether there is anyone left who cares.

Like the treatment of Native Americans, the collection of Egyptian skeletons is rooted in colonialism and a disregard for the wishes of the dead. But, while living Native Americans claim descent from their continent’s first peoples, the Islamic communities of Egypt do not claim continuity with the people who built the pyramids. And even if they did, mummies were gathered to glorify ancient Egyptians while Native American skeletons were long collected to dehumanize indigenous peoples. The modern-day Egyptian government has given its consent for the excavation of tombs.

While the article at Atlas Obscura mainly deals with the pubic display of human remains, there's still the ethics of digging them up in the first place. Where will we draw the line between grave robbing and archaeology? Should respect for cultural and religious beliefs override our quest for knowledge about ancient (and not-so-ancient) people? Should that respect hinge on someone complaining about it? Those questions are explored in a discussion at Metafilter.


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