So there’s this this debate going on in England about a skeleton that was displayed apparantly against the explicit wish of its erstwhile live person (should we call it its “owner”?), Charles Byrne, and people are arguing whether to finally bury it, or whether so much time has passed (some 230 years) that it is no longer relevant. [Hat tip: Rabbi Ze’ev Smason]
Here is a snippet of a blog post citing a renewed call for burrying Charles Byrne:
It seems like a wonderful idea — that society might still care about, and eventually honour, the wishes of a man who died 230 years ago is a credit to human morality. But there’s a thorny, practical side to all this that might get messy for London’s museums. How many other specimens in Hunter’s collection might hold similar claims? What about human remains on show elsewhere? The mummies at the British Museum were not only disinterred from their rightful resting places, but also transported to another country. If we lose Byrne, do we lose them too, and what would that mean for museums’ educational remits (and budgets, come to that)? Honouring the wishes of someone who died a quarter of a millennium ago could open a can of worms, if not a jar of moles.
And here is a choice comment on that post:
It would be a little odd to bury him at sea now: he was apparently motivated not by a love of the ocean but by a desire to keep his corpse out of Hunter’s clutches. That was likely to be linked to contemporary fears that dissection would make satisfactory resurrection impossible. Throwing Byrne’s skeleton into the sea over two centuries after his worst fears were realised seems to be missing the point.
My reply is that the commenter is ignorant about religion, resurrection and about the value of respect for the dead, and seems patronizingly anti-religion, to boot. True, if Byrne is burried, many more skeletons in musea throughout the world might become candidates for burial, but so be it. Who says we gain *as a society* by displaying our ancestors in glass cages? Does respect for the life and the living thereby increase? We should indeed bury them even if that represents a major loss to many musea.
I am willing to respect one exception: skeletons older than, say, 6000 years, i.e., from before Adam. That is because regardless on where one stands on the question of creationism and evilution, I believe that the Account of Creation of Man is a meaningful source of practical consequences. In fact, I wonder whether we’d say that such old skeletons convey טומאה (tumah — ritual impurity imparted by, for example, bones of deceased people)