In response to the comments of Mr Elders:
>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
I don't believe that i did overstate the case, but clearly the reader
enjoys certain freedoms of interpretation and I am not about to insist upon
the primacy of the author in this or any other case.
>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.
As I pointed out, techniques and approaches are continualy changing in
archaeology and it is hardly possible to assume that todays 'hi-tech'
approach will not be superceded tomorrow with some other technique. Nowhere
is this more true than in studies of human bone where cross-fertilisation
between the forensic sciences and archaeology have proved enormously
productive. To continue with the innovative study of human remains, access
to large bodies of data (no pun intended) is essential.
>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.
That is good to hear, as far as it goes, but it does not address the
point made above regarding the necessity to be able to revisit collections
as techniques and areas of research interest change
>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
This would indeed be an excellent way of combining the two areas of
concern and would, in addition, allow far more sympathetic use to be made of
'redundant' churches than is the case at present. Definitely a positive way
forward. Perhaps it could be extended to include other categories of
archaeological material, particularly those which do not require high levels
of environmental control. Security would of course be a major
>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.
I did not attend the debate at the Institute of Ideas and so cannot
comment on the nature of the contributions on that occasion, but my own
feeling is that when confronted with a monlithic entity such as a religious
sect (christian or otherwise), polemic is sometimes a necessary tactic in
order to make ones point. With regard to the pre-death presumptions of
those buried in consecrtated ground - one assumes that the Huguenot's buried
in Spitalfields did not expecte their coffins to be stacked and restacked so
as to allow the church to sell and resell the same 'high-value' space over
and over again - cases like this suggest that the church has a fairly
flexible attitude towards the wishes of the deceased, particularly when
money is involved.
>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.
I supplied full details of the case of the Sheffield cathedral cemetery
to the human remains working group, with (so far as I recall) the details of
contacts who could provide corroborative evidence to support my own. The
cemetery was destroyed under the eyes of office workers in buildings
overlooking the site whose protests were a significant factor in drawing the
attention of the local press to the matter.
>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.
No doubt this will be an interesting and useful document - will it
reflect the views of the entire Anglican communion or only that of certain
elements? Unanimity has hardly been a feature of recent debates within the
church where, it seems, certain reactionary attitudes are deeply entrenched.