Human Remains

Archaeologists, anthropologists, and classicists seem unanimous in asserting that the values of every culture, ancient and modern, entail proper disposal of human tissue and dead bodies. Among many peoples, the obligation to put the body properly to rest has been extended to maintaining the places of disposal as sacred sites. For example, in seventeenth-century New France, now Quebec, the settlements were considered unsuccessful until cemeteries were established. Prior to that, members of the aristocracy who could afford to do so had the body preserved in alcohol or stripped to the skeleton and shipped back to the country of origin. Those of lower status were simply buried in unconsecrated ground and forgotten. Only when consecrated cemeteries were allowed was a parish established, thus allowing the second and third generations of New France to claim the land around the site as "home." The parishioners then had all of the rights of identity afforded their ancestors in the mother country, along with the obligations of maintaining the parish cemeteries as sacred ground.

It is taboo in most of the world to disturb the remains of deceased ancestors except under the most limited of circumstances. Nevertheless, cemeteries are sometimes subject to disturbance. Historically, destruction of burial sites has often been the first act of dominion a conqueror imposes on the vanquished precisely because of its demoralizing effect on the local population. To desecrate means to treat contemptuously, often in a way that demeans for the progeny the importance or values of their ancestor's remains and the sacred sites of disposal.

Groups of indigenous peoples around the world are working to encourage the United Nations to adopt a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples forbidding the desecration of burial sites and the displaying of ancestral remains and grave artifacts as tourist attractions. Other international organizations seek to contain the rapidly expanding market for human organs taken from unsuspecting patients and the newly dead in order to cash in on demand in the organ transplant market.

Two major actions taken in the United States have influenced worldwide debate about the use and abuse of human tissue, modern and ancient—the Vermillion Accord (1989) and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990). The Vermillion Accord on Human Remains emerged out of the first Inter-Congress of the World Archaeological Congress at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. Individuals from twenty countries, twenty-seven Native American nations, and indigenous people from other parts of the world—among them human osteologists, archaeologists, medical educators, and ethicists—discussed and debated the subject of respectful treatment of human remains. The result, a six-point agreement that has influenced subsequent efforts to bridge the interests of indigenous peoples and scholars, appeared in a 1990 issue of Death Studies :

  1. "Respect for the mortal remains of the dead shall be accorded to all irrespective of origin, race, religion, nationality, custom, and tradition."
  2. "Respect for the wishes of the dead concerning disposition shall be accorded whenever possible, reasonable, and lawful, when they are known or can be reasonably inferred."
  3. "Respect for wishes of the local community shall be accorded whenever possible, reasonable, and lawful."
  4. "Respect for the scientific research values of skeletal, mummified, and other human remains (including fossil hominids) shall be accorded when such value is demonstrated to exist."
  5. "Agreement on the disposition of fossil, skeletal, mummified, and other remains shall be reached by negotiation on the basis of mutual respect for the legitimate concerns of communities for the proper disposition of their ancestors, as well as the legitimate concerns of science and education."
  6. "The express recognition that the concerns of various ethnic groups as well as those of science are legitimate and to be respected will permit acceptable agreements to be reached and honored."

The accord was later expanded in the World Archaeological Congress's First Code of Ethics.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, passed by Congress in 1990, established rules for returning Native American remains and grave artifacts to appropriate indigenous populations. By November 1993 museums holding Native American materials containing human tissue were required to prepare written summaries of their collections for distribution to culturally affiliated tribes. By November 1995 museums were required to prepare detailed inventories of their Native American collections.

Since adoption of the accord and the passage of the act, legislation has been expanded to cover use of various tests, such as carbon dating and DNA, for identification of remains; control of sale of human tissue; and restriction of collection of ancient, indigenous artifacts associated with sacred areas.

See also: Anthropological Perspective ; Cemeteries AND Cemetery Reform ; Kennewick Man ; Mummification


"Human Remains: Contemporary Issues." Special issue of Death Studies 14, no. 6 (1990).

"Museums and the Human Remains Controversies." Special issue of Caduceus: A Museum Journal for the Health Sciences 6, no. 1 (1991).

Reynolds, Frank, and Earl H. Waugh, eds. Encounters with Death: Essays in the History of Anthropology of Religion. College Station: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977.

Internet Resources

Bocek, Barb. "Native American Repatriation & Reburial: A Bibliography." In the Green Library at Stanford University [web site]. Available from .


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