> Date: Thu, 11 Dec 1997 18:04:33 -0000
> From: John Birtwistle <[log in to unmask]>
> Reading this brought to mind a question which I've often wanted to ask. I
> know there are at least a couple of archaeologists on this list so maybe
> one of them could give me the answer.
I'll try to.
> I shall eventually die, as shall we all, and I would like to be buried. I
> genuinely believe in the importance of lying at peace. The last thing I
> want is for some inquisitive bloke (or woman) with a spade to come along
> and dig me up. We accept that recent burials shouldn't be disturbed,
> witness war graves and the debate about the "Titanic", but seem indifferent
> to the values of earlier times.
Well, this of couse may seem to be a problem. The question is, is it?
I only know the situation in Austria, but here, on most cemeteries,
you/your family has to pay a rent for your grave. Of course you can
pay in advance for a while, but once the money is gone, they dig you
up and give the grave away to somebody else, storing your bones
(which is most likely all that is left from you, then), in a
"Karner", a bone-house (if they do at all). I don't know how this
is in Britain or elsewhere on the planet, but you can be pretty
sure that this happens in many places.
So it is questionable if you really will rest in peace in the first
Even more, it is not very likely that archaeologists will dig up your
body in the next 200 to 300 years - you won't be interesting until
then. And if you think what all might happen to your grave in the
next 2-300 years, the archaeologists spade might be the best that
might happen to you. After all, it could be destroyed because of a
bypass street having to be built exactly acroos your chest, or
because of some other idustrial or commercial necessities, or because
of various other reasons. On the other hand, if archaeologists find
and dig up your grave, you can be (at least at the moment) sure about
a few things:
a) they will do it with great care, trying to destroy as little as
b) they will do it at least with some piety. After all, they are
interested in you and your remains, they will ask themselves who you
were, what you did, when and why you died, and what you believed in.
In contrast to almost anybody else who could find your remains your
bones will not be "old rubbish, better to be thrown away" to them,
but they will try to see your remains as a person that once lived.
c) once they have taken you out, they will move your remains to a
place where they can rest again, together with any gravegoods or
personal things you might have taken with you. The wort thing that
could happen to your remains is that they'd be displayed in a museum,
below a transparent plastic window. However, still you would be
allowed to rest in peace, and as I suppose you want a tombstone for
your grave, you want at least some attention.
d) once your bones are in a museum, they will be cared for in the
case of most problems that can be somehow overcome - even if the
museum is replaced with a bypass street, somebody will take your
bones and transfer them to another museum, where they will again be
allowed to rest in peace.
The longer your bones are in the ground, the more likely it will
become that they are of no more interest to anybody than
archaeologists. I have witnessed more than one situation where the
comment of everyone involved but archaeologists wanted to get those
damned old bones out of the way ASAP, and hopefully they're destroyed
underway. When the Catholic Kings of Austria built a railway south of
Vienna, they hit a prehistoric graveyard. They sold the bones, and
they were crushed and used to build some conrete bridges ...
> So, to the question: How long is a body allowed to rest before it becomes
> fair game to the knowledge-seeking bodysnatchers? Ten years? A hundred
> years? A thousand years? Or maybe it depends on their religion so that
> digging up pagans is OK but digging up Christians isn't. I'm curious.
The point is, as soon as noone living has any emotional or other
contact with the specific dead, they become a hindrance rather
than anything else. This usually takes a hundred, or maybe twohundred
years, but then they are no longer interesting to anybody except
archaeologists (and maybe priests, but this is also not too likely,
as long as the bones are not a saint's bones).
To conclude, the best that can happen to your remains once your
longer than 200 years dead is to fall into the hand of archaeologists
- as they will make pretty sure that they can rest in peace in the
archives of a museum. They will give them the best treatment they can
get, and they will at least once in a while loose a thought on the
person the bones once were. This is more than you could expect if
they were let in the ground.
> Le beannacht
> John B
> (Old friends who wondered whether I had shuffled off this mortal coil will
> be pleased to know that I have now started to settle into a new home. Old
> antagonists might be disappointed.)
> [log in to unmask]
> John Birtwistle, 6/DT4 8LR, UK
> Ba nocht thú ag teacht agus is nocht thú ag imeacht.
> You were naked when you arrived and you're naked when you leave.
RAY (Raimund Karl,University of Vienna,Dep.of Prehistory)
email: [log in to unmask] (or [log in to unmask])
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