Duties to Human Remains in Universities and Museums

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Human remains are stored in universities and museums all over the world. A recent example of genetic testing on old human remains is the results from Tutankhamon and his family. On May 29, Malin Masterton will defend her doctoral thesis on the moral status of past people and protection for historical persons. The thesis also discusses our duties towards the dead.

We only need tiny amounts of DNA to test for disease or confirm identity, even from people who have been dead for a very long time. In the case of Tutankhamon and his family, researchers could reveal identities of up till now unknown mummies and show probable cause of death for the young king. The fact that such tests can be performed on historical persons raised enough questions for a PhD thesis.

But whose integrity and interests is it when the person is dead? According to Malin Masterton, parts of a person's identity remains after death. One way of looking at identity is as a narrative -- the story of one's life -- that both stands alone and is interwoven with other people's stories. Seen like this, the dead too have a name and a reputation worth protecting.

If the dead, to some degree like the living, have integrity and reputation, they also have moral status and we can wrong them. According to Malin Masterton, we have three duties to the dead. We have a duty of truthfulness in our description of a persons' reputation. We also have a duty to respect the personal integrity of the dead in research contexts. Finally, we have a duty to admit wrongs we have committed to the dead, like illegal archaeological digs.

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