Life After Death: Rethinking Human Remains and Human Osteological Collections as Cultural Heritage and Biobanks

Principal researcher: Francisca Alves Cardoso

Research group: Practices and Politics of Culture


Human Remains | Biological Anthropology | Ethics | Archaeology

Funding Institution

Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia



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This research project forwards a new understanding of the status of human remains (HR), their role in advancing science, and importance as agents of research agendas and societal policy-making. It addresses the “status” of human remains (HR), expanding its debate to human osteological collections (HOC), simultaneously as cultural heritage and biobanks. On the one hand, HR are allocated to museums, as other material goods, and managed under a cultural heritage logic; on the other hand, they embody repositories of biological information, and used as human research biological samples, with vital genomics associated information, and as anatomical pieces, whose management comes from another legacy.
This duality of HR & HOC blurs the status conferred to HR: Cultural Heritage or biological samples? Or Both? Conceptualization of HR & HOC as Cultural Heritage and/or BioBank is the proposed reading of this project, without pre-determined definitions. HR are placed in Cultural Heritage studies and strongly advocated as such. The reference to biobanks applied to HOC is a new (suggested) view of their status, in line with science’s technological advancements and HR capitalization (as specimens) in medical research and human evolution and ancestry.
Studies using HR preserved in HOC are exponential, promoting methodological, theoretical and conceptual advances, combining interdisciplinary social and biological approaches. HR from archaeological digs, modern cemeteries, indigenous communities and other contexts attract the interest of academics and the general public, endorse debates and steer controversies associated with historical and cultural tensions, and legal and ethical dilemmas: all related to HR in research, teaching, musealization, restitution and repatriation struggles, pressuring stakeholders associated with HR curation. The growing interest has also shown that specific legislation related to HR exhumed from archaeological digs and modern cemeteries are lacking. Further, ethical dilemmas of dealing with the remains of people who did not consent to be housed in HOC are being put forward. The fast-growing HR exhumation from archaeological digs throughout European cities, alongside the need to vacate modern overcrowded cemeteries, exert pressures on those responsible for HR curation, and begs for HR specific legislation. In future, the filling up of cemeteries due to COVID pandemic will become an added problem: as graves are vacated many HR with living relatives will need addressing. 
Consequently, defining HR “status” is urgently needed to address these issues. This project explores HR and HOC as Cultural Heritage and Biobanks with a pan-European comparative approach highlighting major ethical, legal and cultural issues associated with HOC and how main stakeholders, including governments, academics and lay communities have addressed these issues. This research may have major academic and socio-economic implications on existing HOC throughout Europe.
This project aspires to enhance science-society relations in what concerns HR, incorporating discussion on the frailties of past uncomfortable legacies, balancing the concepts of “dignity/caring/memory” alongside science advancement, reinforcing the growing concern on HR’s ethical issues. The project departs from the assumption that integrating human remains into collections, for research and teaching, sanctions a “life after death”. The dead are not forgotten, they continue to be part of humanity’s legacy and memory. Hence, to respect and treat human remains with dignity is to respect oneself. I often digress on the possibility that we may all, if not cremated, share this “after life” status.