I wish I could go back to the bones.
By Julia King
Art by Jamie Liu
Recently I have felt like I'm in some kind of spinning tunnel, where I might think I’m on my feet one second, but in the next moment I’m completely upside down. In the course of a few weeks, my friend committed suicide, a classmate from high school was murdered by his college roommate, and a student brought a knife to my brother’s high school with a list of people he was going to stab. In a time like this, I desperately want something that can truly ground me, stop me from tumbling around. I wish I could go back to the bones.
I’ve always had a hard time with faith, in the religious sense. I was raised Lutheran Christian, but I could never bring myself to believe in heaven, or in lots of other things the pastor said. I don’t know why — I think I would have liked to believe in these things so I could take some comfort that when my friends or family died, I would see them again in a better place. Since I couldn’t fully believe in any of that, I began to think that maybe I couldn’t have faith. Faith: something I could believe in without seeing it, without feeling it.
But then I worked for the anthropology department my sophomore summer cataloging the collection of human remains in Silsby. I’d taken a class on human osteology my freshman year, so I’d already had some experience handling and identifying bones. Spending so many hours alone that summer in the small osteology lab, though, examining element after element, was a completely different experience. Even though I was alone in the lab I didn’t feel that I was alone, especially knowing that there were hundreds of human beings scattered in boxes and drawers around the room. But as creepy as that sounds, it didn’t feel creepy to me. That summer did have a big impact on how I thought about death, though. I wouldn’t call Silsby Hall heaven, but the thousands of remains in the anthropology department do go to show that there is existence after death. They contain both the history of a person’s life — from where they were born to what injuries and illnesses they suffered to how they died — and the DNA that determined their genetic heritage. It’s not a novel thought that bones are spiritually special — in fact, I think Western scientists are the outliers in treating human remains as mundane scientific objects. In the lab, bones are a collection of measurements, qualitative descriptions, and accession numbers. In my experience, many remains lack associated documentation, making it even easier to divest the remains from the humans.
Along with my solemn fascination with the remains, I began to feel a sort of deep anger. The fact that the catalog needed to be done at all was because of the complete lack of prior documentation of the collection. In the hours I spent in the lab, I had plenty of time to wonder who these people were, where their families were, and what they would want to happen to their bodies. Some of the shameful history behind the creation of human remains collections is fairly well known; the Morton collection of stolen skulls at the Penn Museum, for example, or Carolina Biological, who used to dredge the Ganges for skeletons that were to stand in elementary classrooms. I looked at the Carolina skeleton in the corner of the Silsby lab, a woman of small stature, and imagined she may have once been at rest in a holy river.
There’s also the likelihood that some of these remains have never been buried. Centuries ago, when people died who couldn’t afford to be buried or were never claimed by their families, their remains were subsumed into the university system and used in cadaver labs and studies. Dartmouth probably did the same; on record, they did take in the remains of soldiers who died in US Marine and Military hospitals in the 19th century. Many institutions, like Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Smithsonian, have begun to face deserved backlash for maintaining these collections. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act declared that there are Native remains in institutions that were stolen and must be returned. But will this promise be fulfilled? And what about everyone else? What about the homeless, the enslaved, the unknown who were taken into university collections and had their remaining identities erased? Academics may not be digging people up and stealing their bodies for anthropology collections anymore, but there are still so many people’s bodies left above the ground. Collections of human remains, including those at Dartmouth, represent an abuse of power that has not stopped disrespecting the dead and their descendants.
Every time I finished working with the remains for the day, I would carefully place them back in their boxes, wrap the elements that had foam fitted to them, and cover them. Doing so felt like burying them, if only just temporarily. I’m not hesitant to say that I do want these remains to be buried. I know that my feelings are based on things that I cannot quantify or see, like dignity, peace, respect. But I also know that I would want my family’s remains to be at rest, and I would be distraught to know that someone I loved was being held in a cold metal cabinet for the rest of time.
Working with human remains gave me a new sense of purpose and a drive to raise the discussion about what we owe to the remains of human beings. I owe a lot to these remains — they gave me cataloging experience, a role in the anthropology department, and knowledge that guides my thesis work in my senior year. But it’s more than all that — because of them, I believe in the spirit and the humanity that can never be removed from the bodies they left behind. When the world starts spinning too fast and I can’t tell up from down, I press on my arms, my hands, and feel the bones that link me to those many people who have come before me. We are lasting, meaningful bodies that deserve reverence. These bones have given me my faith.