Who Deserves a Proper Burial?

Bones of Richard III uncovered in 2012

Bones of Richard III uncovered in 2012

My work discussing the bones of American Indians doesn’t spring from a morbid fascination with the dead.

Instead I am interested in the biopolitics about bones and how conversations emerge about human remains.

Biopolitics refers to the infusion of politics into biological and scientific decision-making.

I’m part of the crew of critics who argues that science is far from a value-free enterprise.

Science is rife with sentimental entanglements and unlimited faith. Yet many scientists pretend their research and attitudes are purely objective.


Take, for example, the remains of Richard III.

The body of the English monarch, who died in 1485 and was made infamous by William Shakespeare, was uncovered in 2012 in Leicester, England.

The University of Leicester received permission to study the bones.

Scholars said Richard III received several blows to his body and head, most likely resulting in his death. The body was buried unceremoniously—with no coffin and no marker, and his wrists were probably bound.

Like the conflicts that have arisen over Native American remains, many scientists, politicians and relatives have laid claim to the king’s corpse.

A similar and familiar story arises over the 9300-year-old Kennewick Man (called the Ancient One by tribes), who was uncovered in the Columbia River in North America in 1996.

Local Indian communities, Smithsonian and university anthropologists, and a sect called the Asatru Folk Assembly (a pre-Christian religious group) fought to secure the skeleton.

In the case of Kennewick Man, a federal statute protected the bones: human remains affiliated with tribes must be returned to the Indians, according to the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

Despite the 1990 federal NAGPRA law, the court decided to allow scientists to examine the bones, much to the dismay of Indian tribes. After 18 years the bones remain housed in a museum.

The bones of Richard III also created conflict.

Relatives of Richard III, university officials and the courts argued over who had jurisdiction over the bones, according to the BBC.

But unlike the Kennewick Man case, the battle over Richard’s bones is about where not whether.

While Kennewick Man is lodged in “special boxes” with “hundreds of individualized cutouts to cradle the bones and reduce movement,” Richard’s relatives want him buried in York along with family members.

Other special interests, including the City of Leicester, want to build a visitor center and entomb the king at Leicester Cathedral.

The judge threw open the decision to the involved parties, urging them to come to an agreement outside the court.

But no agreement could be made, and the courts in 2014 decided the city of Leicester could retain its rights over the remains, thus dismissing the family’s claims.

The outcome is somewhat similar to the Kennewick Man case in that the wishes of the relatives of Richard III were trumped by the courts, who favored a civic decision.

But the story ends in a much different manner.

While Kennewick Man remains boxed, the English king is scheduled to have a “proper burial” in 2015.

The closing remarks of the court’s decision reflect a respect for human remains: “We agree that it is time for Richard III to be given a dignified reburial, and finally laid to rest.”

Which begs the question: when will Kennewick Man be laid to rest?

Blog #7 for Native American Heritage Month


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in american indian, native american, native press and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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