Frequently Asked Questions
- What does HAD mean by 'respect' for human remains?
- How old is 'ancient' when we speak of the ancient human remains within HAD's remit?
- What does HAD mean by 'repatriation'?
- Does HAD/Pagans recognise the legitimacy and usefulness of the excavation, retention, analysis and display of human remains?
- Is HAD asking for mandatory reburial of all ancient human remains of British provenance?
- Isn't reburial more to do with modern sensitivities and the spirituality of modern people than important for the ancient dead?
- How can we recreate a burial rite that would be appropriate to that individual's era, religion and culture?
- Modern Paganisms are reconstructions and recreations of old religious traditions; there is no continuity of culture or belief.
- Do British Pagans believe they have a special or exclusive connection with the ancient dead of British provenance?
- What gives British Pagans the right to make a claim over the ancient dead of the British Isles?
- Do all Pagans agree with HAD's aims?
- In what way does HAD represent British Paganism?
- Is HAD the voice of British Paganism?
HAD is currently encouraging discussion on the meaning of respect.
The cut off point for 'ancient' within HAD's remit is the transition in British Saxon culture between Pagan and Christian burials, around the seventh century CE. This was not black and white, and there is an assumption that there was a period when both old and new traditions were in practice.
Refer to HAD's Statement of Intention for a definitive clarification of HAD's remit and principal focus.
HAD's remit includes the repatriation of ancient British human remains. By this, we mean that we would like to see human remains returned to museums within or close to the tribal lands where they were originally interred. If human remains are to be reburied, this ought to be done as close as possible to the original place of burial.
A key aspect of Pagan spirituality, ancient and modern, is a deep connection with the land: to remove a person from their land once they are dead, and take them to another place, is experienced as an act of disconnection.
Some Pagans recognise the value of scientific analysis of human remains, and how that research can add to the stories of the dead, allowing us better to remember who they are. Some feel that this act of remembering is more important than reburial.
No. Many Pagans may feel a strong inclination towards reburial, because reburying remains places them back into the cycles of nature. Returning the dead to the earth gives a stronger assurance of peace, the ancestors not being needed or used but, retaining their personhood, allowed simply to be.
However, there are Pagans who find value, interest and inspiration in the stories that come from archaeology and history. (See question below.)
The great majority of Pagans (questioned by HAD) support the reburial of human remains that have no scientific or research potential. Further, they are concerned about the way in which archaeologists and museums store, analyse and display remains, which is often thoroughly depersonalising. The main issue for Pagans here is whether there is any measurable benefit in retaining these uncontextualised human remains, and if so, to whom is it a benefit, and who decides what that benefit is. Most archaeologists agree that human remains with no provenance and no contextual information are useless for scientific analysis.
How we treat the remains of the dead is a clear expression of modern sensitivities. That Pagans and local communities are now asking for reburial of those exhumed by archaeologists does reveal a change in sensitivities, but this does not negate the ethical value of such requests.
HAD does not claim to know exactly what the reburial rites would have been for the ancient dead. The Recommittal Rite published on this website was put together as a source of inspiration and guidance for those carrying out such rites. Its essence is an acknowledgement of all we know of the era of the individual's life, their own death and interment, the context of and reasons for exhumation, and the present impetus for reburial. Bringing together all these elements allows for a ritual to be created that is relevant, expressing respect in the best way we know how, for the person being reburied and the spiritual needs of present communities.
This question could be asked of any religion or spirituality that has a long history, including Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. No culture is static, no beliefs are unchanging. Many religions have developed over long periods, and have been transplanted into different lands, yet fully retain their spiritual essence. All religions must adapt in the face of new knowledge and understanding. The Christianity that is practised in the British Isles today is unrecognisable from that which developed originally in Palestine in the first centuries CE, or from that which arrived in Britain in the sixth century CE – yet its spiritual intention is the same, and the continuity is acknowledged.
So it is with Paganism. With the coming of Christianity to Britain, indigenous religions were suppressed, their beliefs remembered and perpetuated as superstition and folklore, their gods becoming demons and evil spirits. Over the past three centuries or so, and particularly during the past 50 years, people have been re-discovering these practices, seeking a spirituality or religion that reconciles a nature-based philosophy with the pre-Christian ancestral heritage of the British Isles, creating the modern Paganisms. The continuity is not necessarily in the practice, but in the spiritual intent of those who are drawn to it – as is true of other religions.
Having said that, within many strands of Paganism, there are gods revered now that were honoured two thousands years ago and more, prayers and invocations used that were spoken by our preChristian ancestors, perspectives, ontologies and beliefs carrying through into the modern day.
The answer is very simply no - Pagans make no claim to have a special or exclusive connection with the ancient dead. This question is another that expresses a misunderstanding about the Pagan perspective, and indeed one that is wholly irrational.
The Pagans HAD represents are Britons. In terms of genetics, the vast majority of Britons are just as likely to be descended from the ancient dead (and most of us are) whether or not they are Pagan. Equally importantly, most Britons feel a special connection to bodies exhumed in their local environment, however old those remains are. Far from detracting from HAD's argument, this backs their case.
For the Pagan, however, the connection can be a little deeper. In most Paganisms there is an integral connection with the past, both in terms of landscape and those who lived upon it. The value of heritage, from pre-history to modern cultural expression, is woven into Pagan beliefs and practice. In other words, heritage is not a secular but an overtly religious / spiritual part of Paganism. Needless to say, this includes the remains of the dead.
As such, practising Paganism doesn't provide a special or exclusive connection. What it does create is a particular perspective about human remains that is spiritually, emotionally, viscerally experienced as connection, and that connection is a foundation to much Pagan religious / spiritual practice.
This common question is based upon a misunderstanding of the word 'claim', which is interpreted as a claim of authority, custody or ownership. This may be a valid understanding of the word in the context of overseas claims made by indigenous peoples whose ancestral remains were taken without consent, and who now have the strength to demand their return. The British case is, however, rather different, and as such the word is not usually used by HAD - at least, not without careful explanation.
Where HAD speaks of the Pagans' claim, that is a claim of interest. Pagans, in other words, are expressing an interest in the human remains that is rooted in the nature of their religious or spiritual tradition. This may be a profound sensitivity, a visceral concern, an intellectual curiosity, but fundamentally they are expressing a powerful conviction and experience of connection with the ancient dead, whom they perceive to be ancestors - whether of blood, tribe, people, landscape or heritage.
If a heritage organisation or employee dismisses this as irrelevant or inauthentic, they are guilty of a clear expression of religious discrimination.
Not only are Pagans human beings, with their own thoughts and ways of expressing or presenting those thoughts, but Paganism is a broad spectrum of beliefs, theologies and ontologies; the question would therefore be relevant if HAD were proclaiming there were one answer to the question of human remains. However, HAD is not declaring one policy in terms of action. HAD's focus is to ensure that there is discussion, consultation and shared decision-making around ancient human remains. In this way, all interested parties, including local communities and Pagans, will be heard when it comes to human remains (ancestors) exhumed within their landscape, ensuring that the spiritual, religious and social value of these remains is presented alongside any scientific, monetary or political value discerned by those funding or carrying out that excavation.
HAD is created of a Council of Theologians drawn from all the major strands of British Paganism. These people are priests, writers, teachers and others in the British Pagan community who are usually fairly well known and always well respected. All matters of policy and major decisions are sent out to the council and feedback is collated to ensure that all views are represented. If this collation results in a compromised action then that compromise is all we can do. More often than not, however, feedback from the council expresses a rich vision that allows for a clear direction and strong action to be taken.
The members of this council are also able to send out information from HAD into their own local and spiritual / religious communities, gathering feedback or disseminating information. As well as this group, HAD has a Council of Advisors, some of whom are practising Pagans and some not, but all of whom are involved in the area of interest professionally, whether working in archaeology, museums or other heritage organisations, or in academia, publishing and law, focusing on issues of archaeology, anthropology and sociology.
HAD was originally created specifically to be a voice that could speak for British Paganism. It is not the only organisation that speaks with government departments and other bodies on behalf of the British Pagan community, but it is the only one with a focus on human remains and associated heritage issues. As such it is recognised by PEBBLE, the Pagan Federation, the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids, the Druid Network, the Pagan Network, the Council of British Druid Orders, the Association of Polytheist Traditions - in other words, all the major Pagan organisations in Britain.