Bess Lovejoy: Raising the Dead

Roundup: Historians' Take

Bess Lovejoy is the author of the forthcoming book “Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses.”

THIS week, the pale stone tomb in Ramallah that houses the remains of the former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat was pried open. Researchers plan to test samples of Arafat’s skeleton for signs of poison, after suspicious concentrations of the radioactive isotope polonium-210 were found on his clothes and toothbrush during an investigation this summer. Arafat’s final illness has been a source of speculation since his death in 2004; while medical records show his immediate cause of death was a stroke, many Palestinians believe he was murdered by Israel.

Arafat joins a macabre parade of recently exhumed famous figures. Just this month, Danish researchers announced that tests on the bones of the astronomer Tycho Brahe (exhumed in Prague in 2010) showed he probably perished of natural causes and not, as some had suggested, after being poisoned by his assistant, Johannes Kepler. Also in 2010, Simón Bolívar, Bobby Fischer and Nicolae Ceausescu were exhumed. Christopher Columbus was exhumed in 2003, Jesse James in 1995, Lee Harvey Oswald in 1981 — the list goes on....

But when does scientific imperative shade into idle curiosity — and who gets to decide? Surprisingly, there’s little widely agreed-upon policy to guide us through this ethical quandary, and disputes have mostly been a matter for local courts. The regulations that protect living patients from scientific inquiry — designed to safeguard privacy and informed consent — generally disappear where the long dead are concerned. And yet, just because the dead feel no pain doesn’t mean they can’t be harmed....

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