The following article was inspired by a dialogue between myself and a senior curator at the Leicester Museum, as she crafted ideas into guidelines and policies regarding human remains. Her questions provoked me to set in writing ideas about which I have spoken on very many occasions to people in museums, archaeology, government and media. They are ideas that are evolving as I learn more about these secular worlds of discovery, acquisition and care, yet they are ideas that lie upon the theological foundation of my Pagan religious practice.
Indeed, it is this crucial and topical problem of how to deal with the human remains of the long-dead that in many ways inspired the original creation of HAD. Many museums around Britain have literally thousands of human remains (bones, teeth, ash and more), disinterred by antiquarians, tomb raiders and treasure hunters, by archaeologists funded by the wealthy curious and by shopping mall developers, by kids playing in fields, even police trawling rivers. Human remains centuries and millennia old, not interesting enough to be put into display cases, deemed of negligible scientific value, are held as the responsibility of our museums. As policies change, reflecting a growing acknowledgement that many demand these remains be better respected, storage because increasingly expensive.
Museum Store: Manchester Museum/Manchester University
Some of these human remains were taken (or stolen) from lands overseas, brought back to Britain by traders, antiquarians, academics and collectors. The government, together with museums, and a broad range of advisory bodies, is putting together guidelines as to how such remains might be returned to those who claim them, from tribal councils wishing to restore dignity to their dead, to individuals seeking to reclaim the bodies of blood ancestors.
Yet what of the long-dead and the ancient dead of Britain whose bodily remains lie in museums? It is essentially these people, our ancestors, that HAD stands to represent and for whom we aim to restore sufficient respect. Why? In Pagan terms, and from my own position as an animist and Druid, I believe that it is only when we are able to honour the dead that we are truly awake to life.
Yet how can we honour the ancient dead? In this article I shall not explore ideas about how museums might best care for the remains of the ancient dead, whether in store or on display; that is an another article yet to be composed. Instead, my focus is upon the notion of reburial. Although HAD have declared that reburial is not the only option, it is an important one.
It may be useful to contextualize my perspective by explaining what seems to me a common fundamental within Pagan theologies, and one that informs my own attitude towards human remains.
Many established religions, and most of secular culture, works on the dualist philosophy that once a person has died, any spirit / soul / consciousness leaves the body behind. As a result, that body becomes no more than a redundant husk. That dualism has a long history : we might look back to Plato’s ideas of the perfect Form, all of nature being made up of copies of that ethereal perfection, copies that are by definition inferior, each copy becoming more flawed in a universal flow of decay. Various theologians took up the notion, redrafting it as a foundational belief of Christianity, and after centuries of that monotheism underlying our culture, European philosophers such as Decartes banged the last nails in, declaring this dualism to have a rational basis. From there it seeped into prosaic thinking, becoming the default, the secular understanding of life.
Yet most nature-based religions don’t perceive nature to exist in that dualist state. As a Pagan, revering the sanctity of nature, philosophically I am a monist, sensing there to be only one ‘stuff’ of which all reality is created. There is no physical / spiritual divide. However, this doesn’t mean that all is lost when a body ceases to live. The human body is not a jug that contains the spirit, a jug that becomes worthless when broken.
My own practice of animistic Druidry teaches that when someone is alive, their song (the poetic term for a soul, or energy and consciousness) is in a perpetual state of creativity, their physical body being a part of that creative flow. Instead of the jug analogy, we think of the song or soul as a moving and active current of energy. It is like the rain, our physicality being the shimmering pool of water created of those raindrops.
Crucial to most Pagans is the web of connection : all of nature is interwoven, existing in ecosystems of place, linked through bloodlines, through interdependencies of symbioses, touching along lines of histories and memories. Nothing and nobody is isolated. Each individual’s song is made up of notes given them by the ancestors, by the tribe, by the landscape, by the wind and the food that is eaten, by the rain that falls, that is drunk and pissed. The physical body, then, is crafted of all these songs. It is the totality of experience, it is every single story of every relationship a person forges throughout their life. With each breath and footstep, in every cell, the body sings its relationships with the environment. With each heartbeat, the body is retelling the stories of its tribe, history and heritage, upon the land.
Thus, returning to the pool analogy, when the person is no longer alive, the pool remains. Slowly, given the opportunity through burial, the waters of that pool seep back into the earth, cell by cell dissolving. Even that which remains the longest – the bones, still holding those songs – silently lets go, whispering them into the mud and the flow of time.
Ancient Human Remains: Manchester Museum/Manchester Univeristy
So does each body, indeed each bone, tooth or heap of ash, contain the stories not just of the individual, but of a people and its landscape. Those songs are sacred. They are our heritage, our ancestral treasure : a source of wisdom that must be allowed to release back into the earth in order to become once again a part of the cycle of regeneration. A life that is valuable, in the Pagan understanding, is a life that is richly fed by the wisdom of the dead.
I would here note that for some Pagans, the magic of fire, through cremation, is equally valid as a way of dispersing those songs, releasing them back into spirit, into breath and wind. For myself, this process is too quick for the fullness of a person’s store to be fully given back into the cycle of life.
During my discussions with museum curators, archaeologists, the media, and other non-Pagans with a professional interest in the field, I have found that this theology is not difficult for most to grasp, for to many it seems wholly natural. Indeed, most perceive how it attunes with modern science, if poetically described through the reverential language of sanctity and spirituality. It is, after all, a perspective that comes from a religion based on nature, on reverence for nature and on the wakeful experience of nature, on the obvious reality of natural decay and regeneration that is at the centre of most Pagan practice. However, I have come across many, even those dealing with tribal and Pagan communities, for whom the notion is a revelation.
An important part of this understanding is that it does not apply to a specific and distinct group of ancestors, precluding others : it relates to all our ancestral dead. A thinking Pagan would not consider those who honour(ed) the Christian gods to be any less a part of the sacred heritage of our land than an individual of pre-Christian Britain. While HAD is set up specifically to ensure respect for human remains of pagan (cultural) or Pagan (religious) provenance, we would hope that our efforts inspire those responsible for the dead of other religious traditions to be equally honourable.
I was told a story about human remains disinterred by archaeologists working on a local development. The bones were clearly from an old Christian burial ground, yet those of the Church who were informed showed no interest in taking on a role of care for the remains. As a result, the bones were taken to the local museum to be placed in long-term storage, an action the museum was not entirely happy with (the remains had no apparent scientific interest). Even without a theological belief in the songs of the dead, those bones could have been reburied in a local cemetery with ritual crafted by a minister of that faith, allowing them to reclaim the peace their tribe and family would have wished for them. Simply because they are old enough to have nobody claiming blood connection, does not mean they are no longer to be honoured.
The question of what religious tradition a disinterred ancestor comes from is not always as easily decided as when old Church cemeteries are dug up for new roads. However, this brings us to important related issues. The first is where the remains of the old dead might be reburied and the second is with what religious formalities.
I have often spoken with fellow Pagans about the reburial of ancient bones / remains of the long-dead, and many options emerge into visions, needless to say some costing more money than is likely to be found! Imagine, for example, a number of small beautifully managed natural burial grounds (perhaps just half an acre each) on publicly managed land, such as on the edges of the world heritage site at Stonehenge, with graves for those remains that can be released back to the land. Such sites could become the focus for honouring the ancient dead across the land, and would provide opportunities for the newly bereaved to leaves ashes or make ritual for their own recently departed who wished to be with the ancestors at such sacred and consecrated places. Because some human remains have admissible scientific interest, however distasteful that may be to some Pagans, there could be too a mausoleum-temple for the dead whose remains must to be retained within access for further research.
Such ideas rise in conversations and can be challenged, for only those whose place of origin is unknown could honourably be placed at these scattered sites. If the original burial place were known, the dead must surely be returned to the mud as close to it as is possible. As a result, the idea of reburial in local mulit-faith cemeteries has been raised. I would hope that bodies found complete would be reburied as such. If bones have been found dispersed, not allowing clarity about whose is whose, I would not object to these being reinterred together. Likewise, if bodies were originally found buried with others, I would hope they could again be buried together. It would not be necessary to consider marking these graves individually, for such a practice has not long been a part of our heritage. However, a simple memorial marking where the human remains of the ancient dead are reburied, perhaps with a simple prayer for peace, would be honourable.
Although local authority cemeteries could easily be used for reburial of the ancient dead, the new green / natural burial grounds might be seen by some as more appropriate in many ways. Most of these cemeteries don’t allow memorial stones, but are happy to have engraved plaques, speaking words of respect, secured to wooden posts, standing stones, benches and so on, within what is otherwise a natural environment of woodland or meadow. Such natural burial grounds would be ideal places for the long-dead and the ancient dead of our pagan past, bones or other human remains being reburied with honour and wakefulness.
In terms of ritual, the value of Pagan input (and HAD was crafted for this purpose) is that Pagans don’t believe they are the keepers of the only truth. Philosophically monist in terms of metaphysics, most Pagans are socially and theologically pluralist. Thus, I don’t disregard the gods of Christianity, Judaism or Islam, any more than I would disregard Isis, Bridget or Frigg – they are simply gods about whom I know little; they are not my principle deities. Most Pagans are well used to be in ritual with others who honour entirely different gods, and indeed hold different understandings of what gods are.
As a result, a Pagan ritual that is crafted for open groups or in public is often based upon the simple and clear acknowledgement of the sanctity of life, of the environment and the ancestors. Such simple rituals can be extraordinarily profound, and cannot be judged as dishonourable to any respectful and wakeful religious tradition.
As our ancestors of this land said, ‘May you be blessed by the gods you swear by.” In other words, i don’t need to know which gods you are sworn to, nor to which you make sacrifice or call to in need. Far more important is it that you live with honour, with respect, honesty and responsibility, with courage, loyalty and generosity.
Ritual would be an important part of any act of reburial. If the bones came from what is clearly a Christian provenance, then a Christian priest may be concerned to have Pagan priests make a ritual. However, those of no clear provenance, and those older than 1500 years old, should have ritual crafted by Pagan priests, priests who honour the land and the ancestors, simply.
Indeed, guidelines for a such ritual could be published here on the HAD website, and appended to guidelines written by and for government, museums and archaeologists, in order that those who know nothing of such things would be able to read and see for themselves the inclusivity and simple honour that is fundamental to such a rite.
My feeling is that to rebury without ritual, and thus without an acknowledged priest present (of the appropriate tradition, Christian, Pagan or other), would contain too much risk of the act becoming a bureaucratic obligation, performed without respect.
I have here, then, explained a theological reason for reburial of human remains, together with ideas about where such remains may be buried and with what formalities. The debate as to whether human remains should be reburied will continue, but as museums become less willing to retain the expense of extensive storage of the physical remains of the ancient dead, arguments for reburial seem less crucial. The fact that it will happen becomes closer to inevitable.
Emma Restall Orr
Emma Restall Orr is a founding member of HAD and a member of the HAD Council.