From: Joseph Elders [mailto:[log in to unmask]]
Sent: 13 January 2004 11:22
Chris Cumberpatch does seem to overstate the case regarding the recent statements by the Museum of London regarding the possible reinterment of parts of its collection of human remains, and the attitude of the Church of England.
1) Jack Lohmann did actually say that the human remains held by the Museum of London should be studied before they are reburied (or reinterred, not necessarily underground, see below). No-one, I believe, is suggesting that no research should ever be allowed on human remains.
2) The Church of England has always allowed, and will continue to allow, study of human remains where this has been appropriately justified. This is normally within a reasonable agreed timeframe before reinterment.
3) The Church of England is considering the idea of keeping important collections of Christian human remains accessible for justifiable research within consecrated ground (in churches, perhaps in crypts, providing curatorial conditions are suitable). This would seem to be an acceptable and reasonable solution for everyone, if funding and curatorial arrangements can be provided.
4) Ethics: Clearly there are scientific ethics, those derived from the theology of the religion or faith system, and those derived from respect for those who have lived in the past and their wishes. It is often said that we cannot second-guess a dead person's beliefs and wishes, doubtless true with some prehistoric burials. However, in the case of Christian burials, we can have a pretty good stab. The presumption of these people and their relatives at the time of their demise was that they would not be disinterred, and if they were, that they would be reinterred. These are undeniably difficult issues, and a delicate balancing act is required. It may be noted that the polemic rants on this subject tend to come from those who believe that scientific ethics should prevail, as was the case at a recent debate on the subject hosted by the Institute of Ideas.
5) Disturbances of churchyards and crypts. The Church of England, as Mr Cumberpatch correctly states, does itself disinter human remains from its churchyards, crypts and churches. This is done after consideration of the balance between the needs of the living and the rights of the dead, taking into account a presumption against disturbance which is embodied in Canon Law. Its practice is then to rebury these remains in consecrated ground, after a period of study where this is required. There have certainly been occasions, as in the secular sphere, where the standards of exhumation and reburial have left something to be desired, though I cannot comment on the particular cases mentioned by Mr Cumberpatch.
For these reasons, the English Heritage/Church of England Church Archaeology and Human Remains Working Group, after wide consultation last year, has been discussing this subject for some 15 months and is now finalising its draft report, due to go out to consultation in April. I hope readers will note an absence of zealotry, from all participants, in this document, which if finally adopted by its sponsors, will give firm guidance on these difficult and emotive issues.
Joseph Elders Convenor, Church Archaeology and Human Remains Working Group