> I asked Anselm Nye about the Mile End Synagogue which was where the library
> of Queen Mary and Westfield Collge is now. This of course is later than
> date. But apparantly there was a stir about the digging up of Jewish bones
> to build the college. It is interesting that Christians lack this taboo
> concerning dead bodies that Judaism retains. Why sepulchres were
> at Passover so they would not be polluting. In Italy we have to dig up our
> dead after ten years, clean their bones with toothbrushes, an act of piety
> on the part of the family, and put them in ossaries, but this is because of
> Napoleon, for the sake of hygiene and land availability, and presumably
> holds in the other countries over which Napoleon held sway; of course,
> excluding England.
I believe, in Exodus, somebody's bones were taken along, maybe Joseph's.
Orthodox Jews bury a dead body within 24 hours and don't embalm, which rules
out the viewing of the body over a period of several days that I've noticed
in Catholic practice. A Caucasian body that isn't embalmed turns the color of
terre verte, a sort of olive green. I would assume the stricture against
embalming developed during the middle ages, as embalming doesn't seem to be an
issue in the OT. Maybe somebody on the list knows relevant passages in the
Many or most peoples have had the idea that a dead body that isn't treated in
a ritualistically proper manner is dishonored, insulted, or compromised. The
idea turns up in the OT, where Jezebel's body is thrown to the dogs, but also
in the Iliad. I believe it was Hector's body that his family wasn't allowed to
bury. An approximate parallel in Catholicism might be refusing to allow a
person to have last rites. In Revelation, there's a prediction of dead bodies
lying in the streets, unburied, and this seems to be presented as an abnormal
or horrifying situation. Also in Revelation, sinners are eaten by birds,
which seems to be a variation on Jezebel being eaten by dogs, but to make the
same point--these persons were not regarded as worthy of a "proper" burial.
In the US, most complaints over digging up cemeteries occur when the persons
buried in the cemetery have no known descendants in the area. If somebody
knew his very own grandmother was going to be exhumed, the person would
probably be in court seeking an order to stop the exhumation, and it would be
regarded more as a private matter. But this seems to almost never be the case,
and I think there's a general sense of public outrage over disrespect for the
dead that cuts across races and creeds and has little to do with the specifics
of any particular group's burial practices.
Digging up cemeterys can be a focus for societal tensions, with minority
groups correctly or incorrectly feeling that this would not be done if the
cemetery were not Jewish, Negro, American Indian, or whatever. But there's an
equal uproar over disturbing Christian bodies, particularly if the cemetery is
very old or it's thought there's some particular reason for honoring the
bodies--that they were, perhaps, Civil War veterans. My general impression is
that the contractor who's doing the building is always very elaborate in
expressing respect for the dead, has made plans to move the remains to some
other site, and certainly doesn't want it thought that he intends to toss the
remains in a dumpster and send them off to some trash heap.
I was very interested in what you said about exhuming remains after 10 years
and moving them to ossuaries. Partly because a cemetery director told me
(apparently incorrectly) that nothing was left of a body after one year. But
also because I'm wondering if your soil in Italy is very damp. We have
something similar in the city of New Orleans, where it's against the law to
bury bodies in the ground and they're interred in above-ground mausoleums.
I'm told the area is so swampy that if you try to bury a body in the ground,
the hole actually fills up with water as it's being dug.
Is exhuming remains and moving them to ossuaries unique to Italy, or also a
practice elsewhere in Europe?
A great mystery. What do archaeologists do with human remains when they find
them? My students always want to know what happened to the remains of the
people who were once interred in Roman sarcophagi. And what happened to the
famous tatooed man of Pazyrk, whose frozen body was discovered in Siberia. Is
he somewhere in Russia in a freezer?
A number of American museums have returned Indian artifacts to tribal
descendants, who buried the artifacts again in the ground. Sometimes I think
this is an exercise in futility to prove a point. There's no guarantee the
items won't be dug up again, in 50 years or 500. One complaint about museums
is that they tend to be mausoleums. Most ancient art, especially Egyptian and
Sumerian, originally was placed in tombs but ended up in museums. It's all
very strange. I once saw the contract for a burial plot that belongs to my
family. I forgot if it says the plot belongs to us in perpetuity or will just
have perpetual care. In either case, how can anyone guarantee anything