The Morality of Archaeology and Respecting Human Mortal Remains

DIFFICULT MORAL QUESTIONS: Does the respect for human bodies, which is not only a Christian duty but a universal one, require us to refrain from examining and displaying human remains?

The body of Padre Pio, who died in 1968 and was canonized in 2002, is displayed Feb. 6, 2016, for veneration in St. Peter's basilica at the Vatican.
The body of Padre Pio, who died in 1968 and was canonized in 2002, is displayed Feb. 6, 2016, for veneration in St. Peter's basilica at the Vatican. (photo: Tiziana Fabi / AFP via Getty Images)

Q. I am a faithful Catholic residing in Lebanon. I have a curious question. Is it morally permissible to dig up archaeological graves, enter them, examine and retrieve what is inside of them — including the body or its remains — and display them in a museum; especially if these people wanted to be buried with their belongings and to stay untouched, like the ancient Egyptians? I already know the Vatican Museums holds mummies, but I would like to hear the moral reasoning behind this. The Native Americans are also pressuring the relevant authorities to retrieve the bones of their ancestors that were excavated. — Elijah

A. I will begin with reference to ancient Egyptians and end with Native Americans.

By way of an adequately reply, we need to answer three questions. First, whether excavating, examining and displaying the contents of ancient tombs, including human remains, is a kind of desecration? Second, is it a kind of theft, that is, is it expropriating what belongs to another against his rightful will? And finally, even if it is neither desecration nor theft, do we have stronger reasons for respecting the original funerary intentions for interred bodies and related possessions than for acting contrary to them?

Is it a kind of desecration? 

Respect for human mortal remains is not only a Christian duty but a universal one. Who can fail to be moved by Achilles’s horrific desecration of Hector’s corpse as described by the pagan Homer? The Catholic Church grounds its teaching on respect for human remains on faith in the resurrection and on the intrinsic value of persons. We respect the bodies of the dead as a witness to the Christian hope in the resurrection of the body. We also treat dead bodies with respect as a way of symbolically honoring the memory of the persons whose remains were once their bodily expression. Finally, we respectfully bury the dead as a corporal work of mercy (Catechism 2300; Pius XII, Allocution to a Group of Eye Specialists, May 14, 1956).

Does respect require us to refrain from examining and displaying human remains? It might, if we had a duty to conform to the wishes of those who are long dead. But unless the common good of some presently existing community is benefited by leaving intact the burial grounds of ancient peoples, those in the present ought not feel bound by the wishes of members of past civilizations. No promise is broken when we disregard their wishes because we’ve not been party to any such promise.

Additionally, in the case of the ancient Egyptians, their wishes for their graves to be left undisturbed were at least partially predicated on falsehoods. Their religion believed that after death, part of the person’s soul returned to the body by night, and so preserving the body was crucial for the welfare of the soul.

We know, as Pope St. John Paul II confirmed, that death “results from the separation of the life principle (or soul) from the corporeal reality of the person” (Address to the 18th International Congress of the Transplantation Society, Aug. 29, 2000). This separation is irreversible. The material remains are no longer the body of any person, nor do they possess any intrinsic personal value. They do have instrumental value inasmuch as they benefit the living for things such as bereavement, respect for memory or medical training. 

So, No, examining and displaying mortal remains of citizens of past civilizations is not necessarily disrespectful.

The second question is whether ownership claims are at stake with the expropriation of ancient human remains? The funerary and property laws that bound ancient Egyptians bind us only if they are expressions of the natural law. But mummification and entombment rituals are not universal norms binding everyone everywhere for all time. The communities in which they arose passed out of existence millennia ago. Dead ancient Egyptians cannot have any present-day claim.

What about their kin? If descendants of ancient peoples can be identified and a proper lineage of inheritance established over grave contents, then corresponding inheritance regulations and laws would govern how they should be disposed. When dealing with remains or artifacts of ancient peoples, it is unlikely — but not impossible — that rightful descendancy can be established. In the papacy, we have an example where rightful lineal succession can be established. In such a case the bones, say, of St. Peter belong rightly to the Catholic Church. 

In other cases, presuming that archaeologists conform to property laws of host countries, digging up and displaying mummified bodies doesn’t violate ownership rights.

Finally, although entering, manipulating and displaying human remains is neither of itself desecration nor theft, nevertheless do we have stronger reasons for respecting the original funerary intentions for interred bodies and possessions than for disturbing them?

It seems to me that good reasons can exist on both sides of this question. Wherever the human goods of religion, friendship, justice and life would be realized by either refraining from or disturbing the burial sites of ancient peoples, we have reasons for doing so or not doing so.

For example, there are several good reasons for entering the tombs of ancient Egyptians and examining and displaying contents.

We have reasons bearing on human life, that is, medical reasons (e.g., the work of the Mütter Museum). Examining the anatomies and pathologies of older biological materials can illuminate diseases and anomalies, which imparts scientific knowledge that can assist the living. 

There are also educational reasons. Studying the mortal remains of a once-existing civilization advances knowledge on how ancient people lived and died, worshipped, worked, recreated, etc. 

Finally, there are cultural and moral reasons. Examining and displaying human remains in museums gives the community tangible access to humanity’s heritage. What we learn about our past can assist us to make better decisions in the present. 

So there are strong reasons for supporting archaeological projects of ancient burial sites.

If, however, entering tombs and manipulating contents promised conflict between existing peoples or other avoidable harms; or if refraining from doing so promised to realize human goods, such as respect for religious liberty, or the realization of truth, then there would be reasons to refrain. 

Identifying which set of reasons is stronger can be done only in the light of particular information relative to particular situations. Questions of this sort do not admit of “never” or “always” answers.


Native American Claims 

In the case of existing communities of Native Americans seeking protections for traditional burial sites of peoples with whom they share group identity, fairness to those existing communities, respect for their heritages, compensation for past wrongs against them and respect for the basic good of religion are strong reasons for granting them reasonable legal protections to culturally affiliated burial sites and ancestral remains. (See an example of a related law.

Decisions concerning the final disposition of the sites and their contents should be made in consultation with related Indian tribes and if possible, in accordance with their wishes. The transfer of ownership and problems this raises for compensation of present owners would need to be fairly worked out by lawmakers. 


Brief Epilogue on Cremation in the Catholic Church

You might be interested to know that in 1963, the Catholic Church lifted the ban on the cremation of human corpses. The ban was instituted in response to the rise in the 18th century of crematory practices that were adopted as expressions of the atheistic denials of immortality and resurrection of the dead. In witness against atheism, the Church prohibited Catholics from consenting to cremating their bodies. 

By the second half of the 20th century, cremation was no longer associated with denial of doctrine, hence the prohibitions were lifted (see Code of Canon Law, 1176, No. 3). 

As the practice of cremation increased from that time to the present, cremation again has come to be associated with false ideas about death and the afterlife. In response, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2016 published an Instruction emphasizing the Church’s strong preference for the burial of corpses over cremation, but not prohibiting the latter: 

“In memory of the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord, the mystery that illumines the Christian meaning of death, burial is above all the most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body.” 

The document concludes, saying “the Church insistently recommends that the bodies of the deceased be buried in cemeteries or other sacred places.”