Rights of the Recently Dead

How do we balance the need for scientific inquiry and gaining of knowledge, with our moral obligation to respect the remains of the deceased? Currently the issue has been raised regarding the right to privacy of mummies. Anatomist Rühli and ethicist Kaufmann are arguing that research done on mummies is invasive, intimate, often revealing medical and family histories, and the individual has no ability to give consent. They argue that researchers need to consider how the study may affect the individual.

One example they give is the multitude of tests and studied done on King Tut. Would it be against his wishes to have his cause of death revealed as malaria, when he wanted to be remembered as a warrior? Or is it in his favor, as his story has given him global fame and academic immortality?

Rollo, a researcher on Ozti, argues that any research is viable on individuals who are “old enough to belong to an historical and social epoch that is felt sufficiently different and far from the present one by most people”. However, this does not give us a defined era we can work in, and the time lapse may vary given the culture and their connection to the dead. Others argue that as long as there is scientific knowledge to be gained and the descendant communities are not opposed, that research is acceptable.

This debate is not only important to mummified remains, but rather to remains in general and even mortuary sites. How do we strike a balance between respect and research.  The modern dead do have certain rights to privacy. Should we extend these into the past? What about our treatment of mortuary sites? At what point does it become morally and ethically viable to excavate a cemetery, or build a parking lot around it?  In my personal view, academic work done on human remains is extremely beneficial in that it can inform on the lives of past populations and puts the individual back into history. While we do need to maintain professional standards, avoid unnecessary destructive testing, and treat the remains in a respectable way, we should continue to do our research.

Works Cited

Marchant, Jo. 2010. Do Egyptian Mummies have a right to privacy. http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20727774.600-do-egyptian-mummies-have-a-right-to-privacy.html

Kaufman and Ruhli. 2010. Without Informed Consent? Ethics and Ancient Mummy Research. http://jme.bmj.com/content/early/2010/07/29/jme.2010.036608

One response to “Rights of the Recently Dead

  1. I’ve got to disagree with the idea that the dead have rights. Those are possessed by the living. If the dead left a will, specifying the treatment of their remains, I can see where it would be applicable since the will was created by a person with rights. But assigning right to human remains sounds like something made up for the benefit of the living, without any basis in reality.

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