Why are the actual bones and remains of the ancestors important to both sides of the reburial debate?
The controversy over the reburial of human remains continues with the legal battle over where King Richard III – recently discovered under a car park in Leicester – should be laid to rest. In the meantime, English Heritage have decided that the human remains extracted from Stonehenge should be put on display, greatly offending local Druid Arthur Pendragon.
One set of remains is causing a dispute as to where is the most respectful place to put it, while the other is held up as a tourist spectacle; very different ways of dealing with what is in truth a small remnant of a human being. Why do we deal in one fashion with the one, and in a very different fashion with the other? What is different about the two remains? Two things spring immediately to mind, and each may have relevance.
King Richard’s remains are… King Richard’s. They are the bones of a known person, with a known history. Those removed from Stonehenge are anonymous, and the stories about them are at best reconstructed rather than factual. Is it, therefore, that we honour the history of the person? Is the imagined mythology of the Stonehenge remains less attractive?
Arthur would have English Heritage replace the prehistoric remains with replica models which would be, on the face of it, indistinguishable to tourists from the actual remains, and why not? In these times where one can even make a functional firearm from a 3D printer would not an exact reproduction be better? If not, why not? Indeed, such a replica would be effectively indestructible, and could be handled with impunity; recreated if damaged. One could argue the tourist experience would be heightened.
King Richard was also a Christian, and it’s fair to acknowledge that the Stonehenge folk of some five thousand years ago probably weren’t. Are we in a position of discriminating on the basis of the established religion of these islands? Is that why we are as content to see mummified remains and even unwrap mummies, and hold onto ancestral remains of other indigenous folk around the world?
And yet other Christian remains are displayed, even for reasons of tourism. I recently visited the Capuchin Crypt in Rome, and of course religious icons reside in many Catholic churches. These pieces of bone and skull and assorted bits of people (often, far more bits spread across Christendom than would have ever been needed to make one copy of that particular person!) sit alongside slivers of the crucifix and vials of blood; revered for the stories of the person they once were connected to. Revered for the connection to the spirit of the person…
Some pre-Christians (the evidence is ambiguous) may have de-fleshed the bones of their ancestors, and kept them in barrows and cairns, to bring them out again for ritual celebration, to tell them the deeds of the tribe perhaps, to witness events; returning them to the darkness for future outings. The tradition of displaying death and communing with the spirits of the dead crosses the religious spectrum. But those that were buried were probably intended to remain so, melting slowly, gently, back into the earth.
Why would exact resin copies not be as good, or appropriate, for the Stonehenge Visitors Centre? Is it that the intangible connections to the ancestors do actually play a part in the subconscious needs of those planning the centre? Might it be that both sides feel the connections? After all, English Heritage is made up of historians and archaeologists and other folk immersed in the ancient dead and their environs too. Are we seeing two sides linked by a common resonance, but with opposing understandings of the way to connect with it…? There is something there in addition to the simple physical material of the remains, and both sides can feel it.
[addendum: this post escaped the bish pit of draft waffle, by dint of my pressing Publish instead of Save Draft, so it might be a little unfinished and now is unlikely to be! Do comment your thoughts.]