Harvard removes human skin binding from book after more than 90 years
June 11, 2024 6:11 AM   Subscribe

Harvard removes human skin binding from book after more than 90 years. Harvard University has removed human skin from the binding of a book held for over 90 years at one of its libraries
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries (67 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
Caitlin Doughty did a video referencing this book, IIRC. She does joke a lot, but she is also serious about respect for human remains, especially those belonging to people without the power to command that respect in their lifetimes.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:23 AM on June 11 [7 favorites]




What a shame. The woman didn't give consent so we'll have to consign her to the default treatment of burying her like we do the trash. Hopefully the French will consider something a little more dignified.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:56 AM on June 11


I am a total organ donor but would happily donate my skin to bibliopegy. Doesn't seem like anyone is doing it nowadays though?
posted by Not A Thing at 6:57 AM on June 11 [10 favorites]


I can recommend this book about the ethics and history of using human skin as a bookbindings. It was quite good! The upshot of it is that there are way less books bound this way than supposed (due to testing) but the ones that do exist are heatedly discussed amongst librarians and other folks.
posted by Kitteh at 7:05 AM on June 11 [11 favorites]


Obligatory: All this concern over a long dead mentally ill person's skin, what about all the very alive mentally ill people that could use some care, perhaps Harvard could donate a few billion dollars to help with something like that, in reparations. I know its endowment would barely feel the haircut.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:06 AM on June 11 [36 favorites]


What seanmpuckett said. Dang.
posted by kinnakeet at 7:21 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


The woman didn't give consent so we'll have to consign her to the default treatment of burying her like we do the trash. Hopefully the French will consider something a little more dignified.

This is an odd sentiment. Burial is the standard respectful treatment of the dead in both the US and France.
posted by star gentle uterus at 7:26 AM on June 11 [20 favorites]


I love these breakfast time posts.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 7:51 AM on June 11 [10 favorites]


Moses and Mary this is so appalling:

Harvard, widely considered the oldest college in the United States, had indulged interest in the morbid story of the book, calling the 2014 discovery "good news for fans of anthropodermic bibliopegy, bibliomaniacs and cannibals alike".

Ironic appropriation has its limits, you Harvard assholes.
posted by mediareport at 7:57 AM on June 11 [5 favorites]


I really resent the magical thinking over corpses, bothered me hundred thousand years ago when people started getting weird burying their friends with bits of stuff we could use, bothered me when they build big pyramids or small mounds about it, bothers me these days when they do similar, and today I am bothered when hand-wringing academics pat themselves on the back for destroying an object out of hollow moral display, while committing the same "sin" of deciding what happens to the skin of a former person who does not exist anymore, that they are "correcting" now, in a facile manner. The horrible part of this story was the treatment of this person in life, and nothing anyone can do now will make that any better, and this ain't doing shit to make it better today. On the heels of all the other story links, seems like an empty PR move to boot. The mentally ill are still preyed on, doubt it would be hard to find an example of Harvard doing it today too. I am way more concerned about their skin and bodies and lives of the living mentally ill, than I am of the literal preserved skin of a person who does not exist anymore.
posted by GoblinHoney at 8:01 AM on June 11 [19 favorites]


And those links in RonButNotStupid's post above are mind-blowingly infuriating.
posted by mediareport at 8:01 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


I really resent the magical thinking over corpses

What a bizarre way of conceptualizing the emotions of family members upset about the selling of the corpses of their loved ones without permission.
posted by mediareport at 8:04 AM on June 11 [20 favorites]


>>The woman didn't give consent so we'll have to consign her to the default treatment of burying her like we do the trash. Hopefully the French will consider something a little more dignified.

>This is an odd sentiment. Burial is the standard respectful treatment of the dead in both the US and France.


It’s certainly the tradition, but it derives from an era when there were no other choices. Digging a hole and leaving a body to rot in it is barbaric no matter what sort of ceremonies you put around it.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:25 AM on June 11


I’m not a strict cultural relativist but calling any society’s funeral practices as “barbaric” is a tad bit insensitive.
posted by Ishbadiddle at 8:37 AM on June 11 [26 favorites]


Good. It is good that Harvard is doing this.
posted by Suedeltica at 8:50 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


As with everything else, consent matters.

My personal wishes for my remains are for any of my viable organs to be donated to people who need them, my skin to any bookbinder who can make use of it and everything else left in a tree in California's central coast where the turkey vultures can get at me.

I have every reason to believe that my wishes in this regard will not be carried out and that's fine. I don't expect the living to burden themselves with what would likely be a very upsetting process for them.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 8:55 AM on June 11 [6 favorites]


I am way more concerned about their skin and bodies and lives of the living mentally ill, than I am of the literal preserved skin of a person who does not exist anymore.

So why get upset about the decision to unbind the book and put the human remains to rest? You just said you care more about the lives and bodies of those who are currently living. That's great! Harvard's decision regarding the fate of the book is pretty neutral with respect to those who are currently suffering from mental health issues.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 9:00 AM on June 11 [11 favorites]


Harvard's move means the Boston area will have only one book bound in human skin (well, that we know of), but don't worry - that example of anthropodermic bibliopegy, at the Boston Athenaeum, was entirely voluntary.
posted by adamg at 9:21 AM on June 11 [3 favorites]


Binding a book in human skin is some borderline psychotic behavior, although I suppose a 19th century physician would have had a lot experience with corpses, so maybe he didn't think twice about it. Removing it is kind of pointless to me, but also nothing of value is lost. Now, try and remove the traces of slave labor from the (literal and figurative) foundations of your university, Harvard. You're soaked in blood no matter what.
posted by dis_integration at 9:22 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


“Everybody is a book of blood; wherever we're opened, we're red.”
― Clive Barker
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:33 AM on June 11 [6 favorites]


and everything else left in a tree in California's central coast where the turkey vultures can get at me.
That seems like a thing a lot of California people might want to do if you gave them the option. Not sure it's scalable, though. If just one in a thousand Californians did it, there would be a fresh human corpse slung up in the branches of some tree along the California coast every day of the year in perpetuity. A lot of hikers would be in for a surprise.
posted by pracowity at 10:47 AM on June 11 [2 favorites]


I'm honestly surprised that said book wasn't, ahem, appropriated by someone interested in Dark Subject Matter since the 2014 announcement regarding its binding. (Granted it's probably kept under lock and key, but still).
posted by gtrwolf at 11:13 AM on June 11


> It’s certainly the tradition, but it derives from an era when there were no other choices.

There were other choices. Before the Slavs were Christianized, they cremated their dead. Cremating the dead stops them from rising up as vampires, you see. When the Christians ordered inhumation instead, this caused a big vampire panic. That's why they had to start driving a stake through the heart, to get the dead to stay in the ground.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 11:14 AM on June 11 [2 favorites]




A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering.

I hate religion.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 11:26 AM on June 11 [5 favorites]


It’s certainly the tradition, but it derives from an era when there were no other choices. Digging a hole and leaving a body to rot in it is barbaric no matter what sort of ceremonies you put around it.

And stripping a body for parts is better?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:36 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


Put my vote in for "Eaten by Vultures". Now there's a funeral tradition!
posted by I-Write-Essays at 11:44 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


Actually, I mis-spoke: technically "stripping a body for parts" is what organ donation is. Only there, the deceased and their loved ones have given consent first.

I am just genuinely surprised at burial being called "barbaric" when there have been WAY worse things people have done with human remains. Ed Gein collected body parts for fun. The Nazis sold human hair shaved off women to make cloth. The Victorians ground up mummies and used them as medicine.

But okay: if burying the skin of this deceased woman is "barbaric", what alternatives do you propose?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:48 AM on June 11 [5 favorites]


First, consent matters from the very beginning.
posted by phooky at 12:32 PM on June 11 [9 favorites]


Burials Unearthed in Poland Open the Casket on The Secret Lives of Vampires

On first reading, I thought this said "Portland," and wondered "Maine or Oregon? Both seem likely, honestly."

As for the book, I dunno. It's not like removing the binding actually fixes anything for the woman, and, if the goal was for Harvard to show remorse, destruction of the volume is probably more in keeping with the principles of justice, as it's surrendering a thing of value, but perhaps establishing a scholarship for people dealing with mental illness and lack of funds to attend Harvard would be more just?
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:52 PM on June 11


I just want to read the book now. The description sounds interesting.
posted by Liquidwolf at 1:07 PM on June 11


You could consider the continuing existence of the book with it's binding to be an ongoing violation of the woman's consent. In that case, removing the binding does at least put a stop to the violation even if it's not possible to bring her any further justice.

The alternative is to just let the book continue to exist with it's binding.

I'm glad Harvard chose to do the former rather than the latter.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 1:18 PM on June 11 [3 favorites]


> I am just genuinely surprised at burial being called "barbaric"

Giambattista Vico thought rituals for burial of the dead (along with marriage rites and religion) was one of the foundations of civilization, without which we would descend into barbarism. Interesting counterpoint. I think he would have thought a skin bound book abhorrent.
posted by dis_integration at 1:20 PM on June 11


it derives from an era when there were no other choices

This is just straight up not true, though. We found grave goods (things meant to go into the afterlife with the departed) with the oldest known intentional burial (around 100,000 years ago). Spirituality/religion might seem barbaric to some but its certainly indicative that humans don't just bury people as 'trash.'
posted by Jarcat at 2:03 PM on June 11 [5 favorites]


And cremation as a death ritual is at least 20k years old, with sky burial possibly being more than 10k years old. It's not like humans didn't have options, but a lot still chose burial or other types of underground interment.
posted by tavella at 2:10 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]


Credit should go to Paul Needham, librarian at Princeton, who was one of the first to call for the human remains to be removed from the book and given a respectful burial. You can read his arguments here (pdf) and, more briefly, here, where he writes: 'I raised this matter privately with the Houghton Library when the blog appeared, but found no receptiveness, and no willingness to open the question to a wider audience.' His persistence has now been vindicated.

For the record, the remark about 'good news for fans of anthropodermic bibliopegy, bibliomaniacs and cannibals alike' was made in a blog post by a Harvard librarian in 2014. The Wayback Machine shows that the post was edited to remove the remark about ten days later. Incidentally, the librarian who wrote the post is now a curator at Brown University Library, which has four books bound in human skin. No word yet on whether Brown will follow Harvard's example.
posted by verstegan at 2:13 PM on June 11 [5 favorites]


The christian practice of inhumation stems not from necessity, but from a theological belief about the final Resurrection, and the need to preserve bodies so that they may be brought back to life at the end times. There's all sorts of medieval fanfiction written about the nature of the body you will get back. It's not a new body, it's the same body you had. And therefore, it's very important that it not be destroyed by cremation. Destroying someone's bones with lye wasn't meant to be merely a symbolic act.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 3:04 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]


I absolutely do not condone this practice and this woman could not consent to the use of her skin, but the horrifying 19th and 20th century “trophy reuse” of the indigent and subaltern dead happens after a long period, in Christian Europe, in which the bodies of saints and high-powered people were indeed displayed, dispersed, stolen, refashioned into relics, etc., and this was all in a context of respect. We should be as precise as possible in any historical context, because something definitely switched at some point.

I would have so much more respect for Bouland had he himself been bound though.
posted by Hypatia at 3:59 PM on June 11 [2 favorites]


So why get upset about the decision to unbind the book and put the human remains to rest? You just said you care more about the lives and bodies of those who are currently living. That's great! Harvard's decision regarding the fate of the book is pretty neutral with respect to those who are currently suffering from mental health issues.

Harvard is seemingly trying to score some sort of brownie points with this move, and wanting a reaction from me about a matter tying into other feelings I have about death and how people act and treat only some dead bodies, and it is easy to wander when thinking about life and death. Their collection still has plenty of books bound in the flesh of other animals, and all of them thoroughly filled with the corpses of many plants, with many of the contents of those books containing horrible tales of evil men and history, many possibly acquired in equally unethical manner -- and they are keeping this book.

This move is neutral towards the treatment of those suffering from mental health in that it is not like the money would go to benefit the mentally ill if they didn't spend whatever resources on this endeavor.

This person's wishes, regarding a corpse they leave behind were not ascertained and cannot be respected to whatever degree you believe should be afforded to corpses -- they didn't/couldn't even figure out who she was. The french government picking a place for this fraction of a corpse doesn't inspire any warm feeling in me. If it were about her being identified or family or someone completing a rite that brought them peace that'd be something else.

After reading Paul Neeham's essay and original call for this, which had more detail than the article, I question the value of keeping the book itself. I have no problem in the abstract with a book bound in human flesh or other objects made from our corpses (assuming the person was cool with it in life). I offer now my eventual corpse up wholly to art and medicine. I do have a huge problem with a sex creep from a shitty culture making profit and spectacle out of grave robbing in a post-mortem sex and power fantasy over indigent women.

I also do not like artifacts and objects symbolizing his cruelty over others preserved through history when the victims names are not. It was not that he didn't think to ask, or seek out some dying person who would have been interested in their skin being used in book binding, or was just very dispassionate about corpses being material -- he sought to take advantage of the disadvantaged for profit and to revel in the indignity and deliberate violation of how he created it. Nobody who writes a "curious little treatise on virginity" bound in human flesh is just some creep who desecrated corpses either, and I feel comfortable judging him and his works unworthy of remembrance or preservation. Plenty of nice, ethical, consensual ways to make a book out of skin with words inside that aren't extensions of an evil person's power fantasies.

Freedom from the dead is important. My original rant expressed resentment that was aimed at a lot of things that weren't really the case here, and cover all of human history and some pre-human history as well. Much of that resentment comes from the undue power of the dead influenced over the living. In the extreme, some royal jerk dies and has many others killed or expected to kill themselves in response to be buried with that leader, along with heaps of treasure(wages stolen from workers), so they can continue serving them in death. In the mundane, people die every day unable to get organs because not enough folks are organ donors, they have decided their bodies cannot be used by the living even to save a life. How we respond and react to death and treat bodies isn't a settleable topic, nobody universally agrees on what happens or what to do with corpses or what even a corpse or person is.

Preservation of knowledge and sharing of information and stories of the past is to me a sacred human duty, anything that can be freely shared should be, poor people don't deserve to not read books, see movies, play games, whatever just because they can't afford those things, nor do people who can afford them deserve to enjoy those things, that isn't how money or power are distributed. This is to say, sacred as I think that is, it is also not something every human deserves to be part of. Through circumstance we can never preserve everything and entire civilizations have been lost without a single record of their thoughts. If there was an appropriate thing to do with these 2 books, it might just be to destroy them entirely to end any power or influence or thought of this asshole reaching anyone in the future. This man had no respect for life and I don't think we should afford him special respect to record his creations and thoughts for the future.

I was originally upset for a different reason than I am now. It is upsetting that this stranger from history is being sent to decompose somewhere, while the evil shitstain's texts live on in Harvard with special care and protection and dedication of resources. Clearly they have acknowledge a sin for which they have participated in and seek to rectify, and acknowledge a flexibility in duty to preserve when in public conflict with duty to be ethical. All that can be learned from his creations is "don't" and nothing material need be preserved to maintain that lesson.
posted by GoblinHoney at 5:58 PM on June 11 [2 favorites]


The Needham argument linked above is terrific.
Houghton’s blog refers to this volume as “a popular object of curiosity, particularly to undergraduates.” That is precisely how it should not be treated. It is a polluted object, one that should not be further defiled by such mishandling. When the volume was tested to determine whether Bouland’s binding really was human skin, the question ought to have been raised beforehand: depending on the answer, how may our ethical obligations change?
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 7:04 PM on June 11 [3 favorites]


Research library collections have absolutely nothing to do with respect for the works contained therein, or for the authors who produced them. They exist to serve the scholars who may (or may not) now or someday have a research question that the text can help answer. A good research library does, and must, include comprehensive collections of despicable works authored by history's monsters. I guarantee that your closest university, maybe even your closest local library, includes equally vile works in its collection. Maybe it's self evident to you that there is nothing to be learned from such texts, but many scholars would disagree. It is thanks in part to the study of texts produced by Nazis, for example, that we have strong frameworks for identifying and combatting fascism (and ur-fascism) when it rears its ugly head today. Fortunately, scholars rarely content themselves with saying "that thing is bad and so there is nothing to learn from examining it."
posted by biogeo at 7:40 PM on June 11 [5 favorites]


Thank you to everyone who responded to my comment on leaving bodies to rot in the ground being barbaric.

I definitely misspoke when I talked about not having options. I meant not having modern options. Personally I intend to be composted, but there are plenty of other eco-friendly ways make use of a corpse.

"stripping a body for parts" is what organ donation is.

As far as I am concerned that is a practice that really separates us from barbarians.

The human body can still be useful after death. Even cremating someone and adding them to an artificial reef is more dignified than leaving them to rot.

Obviously I hold a minority view here so.... your mileage probably will vary?
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:16 PM on June 11


What’s the difference between being left in the ground to rot and being composted? Being composted is a kind of rotting, right? I guess it’ll take longer to decompose with burial techniques that try to preserve the body, but we all return to the earth eventually. Burial, composting, and cremation seem to me like different paths to the same destination rather than being fundamentally different.
posted by april of time at 9:46 PM on June 11 [2 favorites]


Personally I intend to be composted

So....you want to have your own body rot, but burial is "leaving a body to rot". What am I missing?

And I ask again - if you don't think that the skin from this book should be buried, what alternatives do you propose?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:14 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]


It's a tangent, but all this talk of funeral practices has reminded me that some of our friends own a small cider brewing business here in the UK and either own or have access to a small apple orchard.

Mrs. Example has declared that when she dies, she wants to be buried under one of their apple trees, and furthermore, the cider made from the subsequent year's apple crop should be bottled and sold under the name "Over My Dead Body". (Our cider friends have at least verbally agreed to this, although the actual legal logistics might still be interesting.)

She's a weird one, and a keeper.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 3:59 AM on June 12 [6 favorites]


Have you ever tried to bury anything under a tree? You need an excavator and chainsaws. Fulfilling the wishes of a couple of people who wanted pets buried beneath their favorite tree caused me a lot of grief.
posted by Miss Cellania at 4:30 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]


It's a lot easier to spread cremains around a tree than bury a body. And the tree gets the important minerals anyway, and a lot sooner.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:43 AM on June 12 [3 favorites]


So....you want to have your own body rot, but burial is "leaving a body to rot". What am I missing?

Usefulness.

If I bought compost at the store solely so that I could dig a six foot hole in a cemetery plot, plop it in, and replace the dirt, would you say I’ve had a productive and meaningful Sunday afternoon? Is the compost doing something useful?

I would say no to both. Using the compost to feed a flower garden or favorite tree actually accomplishes something directed and useful.

And if you want to use the compost to make a little plot sized garden in a cemetery then do that, don’t bury nutrients six feet underground and pretend they’re leaching to the surface.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:39 AM on June 12


Insisting that all human activities and rituals must be useful is pretty barbaric.
posted by biogeo at 6:45 AM on June 12 [5 favorites]


And I ask again - if you don't think that the skin from this book should be buried, what alternatives do you propose?

Well, composting is the first obvious choice. However, I don’t know what sort of chemicals were used in the binding process so that may not be feasible.

A fallback would be to cremate them and add the remains to an artificial reef.

I have very little information about the person in question so I don’t know what they may have felt was appropriate.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:50 AM on June 12


Insisting that all human activities and rituals must be useful is pretty barbaric.

If you’d like to hold a funeral complete with a circus afterwards and a 21 gun salute, knock yourself out.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:51 AM on June 12


I have to admit I’m surprised at the uniformity of the disagreement here. I would have thought many more people who have plans for eco-friendly funerals would have popped up.

There are a lot of human things that have changed as we’ve gotten the ability to do them better. A lot of things that we once considered to be perfect that we now consider to be barbaric. I can understand disagreement on this point, but as I said I’m surprised at how uniform it is.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:57 AM on June 12


Maybe you should think about whether your point is as good as you think it is, then, and whether you were justifiable in using such harsh language to condemn the funerary rites that many people reading and commenting in this thread have employed to help process the grief of losing their loved ones. Maybe the problem isn't everyone else. Maybe have a little humility in how you approach these kinds of conversations.
posted by biogeo at 7:04 AM on June 12 [8 favorites]


Mod note: Hi, just a mod dropping in to note that this is a sensitive topic, so if you find people pushing against what you're writing, consider giving the thread a rest for a while.

No comments have been removed.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (staff) at 7:06 AM on June 12


Wow, did not expect this convo to have gone this way.

I’m glad Harvard is taking steps to respect human remains. For me it brings to mind reconciliation efforts where humans have been treated as less-than. I think it is possible to do both that and address inequity and needs in the present.

My guess from a comms perspective is that this isn’t about “brownie points” but slow moving comms after that terrible library blog post, and is probably geared towards the Harvard community (alumni/donors esp.), but because it’s Atlas Obscura type stuff it got a broader reach.

This French woman was someone’s daughter, possibly sister, cousin, and so on. When my daughter died, the NICU nurses invited us to wash her and do a few other rituals with them. That single invitation and act was very healing. The thought of an autopsy, while we wanted the information, was upsetting. I still visit her grave. I often feel for all the terrible ways people have been denied these simple rites - murdered and missing indigenous women, mass graves of so many types but including residential schools here in Canada, victims in Gaza right now…so many.

Recosnizing the dignity of a deceased person is very late for the person who is dead, but I think only raises the empathy level of the living.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:09 AM on June 12 [6 favorites]


I would like to be buried at sea in a weighted biodegradable basket that would drop to the bottom and let all the little fishies and crabs sneak in and devour me. If lots of people did it, they could have funeral ships that take you out to some deep part of the ocean and send you off like depth charges as they sailed through the drop zones. You'd have to make sure no one was bottom trawling that area, though, or the poor fishing crews would have a gruesome time of it.
posted by pracowity at 9:23 AM on June 12 [1 favorite]




I'd like to apologize for my part in starting the "what if body part reuse but consensual" derail. I think those of us interested in such topics should probably make a separate thread, or at least cease discussing them here.

On the topic of this thread, the OP link doesn't have much to say about what efforts might have been made to identify the woman or her relatives. If people have tried and it hasn't worked out (no usable DNA, etc.), that would be one thing -- but if they haven't tried at all, that would make it hard to take this gesture at face value.
posted by Not A Thing at 9:47 AM on June 12 [1 favorite]


Even cremating someone and adding them to an artificial reef is more dignified than leaving them to rot.

I think that word, "dignified" (and the opposed "barbaric") gets people's hackles up. Dignity is a concept rooted in cultural context. What you think is dignified may not be what someone else thinks is dignified, because they're working from a different cultural script.

Your followup comments are about usefulness, which is a completely different concept from dignity. Maybe you find dignity to be specifically a function of how productive something is, and that's a perfectly valid set of values, but it is not the only set of values out there.

Moving from dignity to respect, the most respectful thing to do with someone's remains is to follow their wishes to the extent such wishes are reasonable*. If you don't know their wishes (as seems to be the case here), following a standard practice for their culture is probably the next best, and in this a lot of cases following either of those suggestions is going to lead you to bury the body.

*Like, "I wish to be cremated via atomic bomb" is emphatically not reasonable.
posted by jackbishop at 10:10 AM on June 12 [5 favorites]


Harvard "is in the process of" conducting research into the identity of the woman in question.
posted by Stacey at 10:36 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I seem to have bumbled into territory that is very sensitive for some people. I apologize for the unnecessary upset, and I will not talk about it in the future.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:59 PM on June 12


Tell Me No Lies, I stand by my strong criticism of your statements above, but I appreciate that your intention was good faith engagement. From your follow-ups, I'm not entirely sure that you understand what exactly I and others are taking exception to in what you said, so in case that's true, I'd like to offer this as a sincere and neutral further explanation. If it comes across as insultingly obvious, I genuinely apologize: I am trying to meet you halfway, and based on what you've said here already it's hard for me to gauge what you think others are thinking.

I do not think it is necessarily inappropriate to discuss how human remains may be preserved for further use in a thread like this one. Some people may disagree with me on this perhaps, but I think it is relevant to the topic and can be discussed respectfully. Human remains have been preserved for ritual or other use in some societies for probably as long as we have been human. Cultural practices vary across time and place, and yes, there have been and may continue to be cases in which a practice like binding a book with human skin could be respectful and honoring of the deceased. That doesn't seem to be the case for this particular book, but there's been some interesting discussion up-thread about the idea and I think it's relevant.

I also don't think it's inappropriate to discuss other funerary practices that involve reuse of the body or its tissues. I understand from your comments that you endorse such practice. So do I. I think organ donation is admirable, and I would prefer that as many of my tissues as are usable for donation be used for that purpose, as many as remain be used for research if possible, or if my death occurs in circumstances that make those impossible, that my cadaver be used for teaching anatomy and surgery. I am also open to the possibility of my remains being used for artistic purposes, though only under certain circumstances. It would please and honor me to know that my remains will improve the lives of others, just as I try to do with my actions during life. I have the impression that something like this is what you intend to advocate for.

What I do think is inappropriate, however, is the aggressive criticism of others' choices of funerary practices for themselves and their family members. And I especially think that it is not acceptable to call others' cultural practices, especially their funerary rites, "barbaric." That is a really ugly word and I think that's where you lost us. People have been engaging in a wide range of funerary rites for as long as we've been human, possibly longer, and calling one another barbarians for their differences for probably almost as long. I'm not a cultural relativist, but if there's one cultural practice that is almost the prototype of "This is really important to people and also entirely relative to a cultural context," it's funerary rites and the handling of the dead. It's totally fine to have a nonstandard preference regarding how you want your remains to be treated. It's totally fine to extoll the virtues of your nonstandard ideas. Better than fine, put your ideas out there: that's how we've gotten to such a greater acceptance of organ donation that it is now a standard practice. But if that impulse leads you to actively insult others' practices that they have used to honor their dead loved ones and to process their grief during some of the worst moments of their lives, I think you need to pull yourself up short and ask what exactly you're trying to achieve.

Again, I hope I have expressed myself in a way that is helpful and not insulting, and if I've failed in that I genuinely apologize.
posted by biogeo at 8:08 PM on June 12 [3 favorites]


Thank you for taking the time to write that out, biogeo. I pretty much agree with all of it.

Prior to this interaction I had never encountered people who’s attachment to their funarary rites were this intense. I came by my viewpoint after discussions with a number of other people (largely in the context of the ecology), and while some people had Opinions on the topic at no point did someone indicate this was a deeply personal issue.

So I didn’t think about it too much, spoke rudely, and accidentally upset a bunch of people.

That happens sometimes, but where I squarely screwed the pooch is when I failed to pick up on the tone of the responses. It was a 100% failure to read the room, and led to a situation where I was treating very lightly things that are very important to other people.

So it was a mistake compounded by a much more serious one. Once again, I apologize to everyone for the unnecessary upset.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:01 PM on June 12 [1 favorite]


... you are really not quite getting it, are you. 'My beliefs are rational and come to by wise debate, but these other people are so bizarrely attached to theirs that they get annoyed when I explain that they are barbaric'.
posted by tavella at 9:42 PM on June 12


Oh, for fuck’s sake.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:24 PM on June 12


Prior to this interaction I had never encountered people who’s attachment to their funarary rites were this intense. I came by my viewpoint after discussions with a number of other people (largely in the context of the ecology), and while some people had Opinions on the topic at no point did someone indicate this was a deeply personal issue.

I think that maybe the reason why you're getting some pushback is because: it sounds to me from the way you've described your discussions, that you're approaching it from intellect and reason alone, but when it comes to dealing with human remains, you kind of can't do that. Even if you try to avoid it, emotion gets tied up in there. I mean, yes, intellectually the corpse in front of you is a bunch of dead meat and organic matter - but for someone somewhere, the corpse in front of you is Meemaw, and that's going to trigger a really different reaction, even if the corpse in front of you is not that person's own Meemaw.

I know that doesn't make sense intellectually, but consider that for many (if not most) of us, the first dead bodies any of us saw were the bodies of our grandparents or some other elderly relative, and so that is likely going to bring some kind of influence into how they deal with this issue. Also, we humans are also kind of weird about death if you think about it - we're the only animals who are constantly aware of our impending mortality. And that messes with all our heads a little.

That's the whole reason why we even have funerary rites in the first place. Some other animals mourn their dead to a degree, but we're the only animals who create rituals around it that also involve doing something with the body itself. None of those rituals are 100% practical either - the "sky burials", where you leave the body on a high peak where it's eventually eaten by buzzards or whatever, wasn't solely because "eh, let's put the body up where the buzzards can eat it", it also is because "we believe in being generous with all beings, and so we are making sure this body is out in the open where as many creatures as possible can benefit". Burial wasn't just "eh, let's put this body in the ground where it can decompose and feed the soil", it was "we are returning our elder to the womb of Mother Earth so he can be reborn".

So the vast majority of us have an element of the emotional tied up in their views about How To Deal With Dead Bodies as a result - and so that's part of why the use of the word "barbaric" threw a lot of us. Your views of what to do about human remains are not in and of themselves what we were reacting to, it was the strong emotion you were displaying in categorizing a burial practice as "barbaric" that set us off; and, most likely, it set us off because we also likely have strong emotions around the issue as well.

Personally, I'm also a bit baffled about why you specifically categorized burial as "barbaric" and why this especially was a hot button for you - since it sounds like the practice you'd prefer seems to have many of the same elements as the one you called "barbaric". So I am more confused than anything else, because I'm genuinely and sincerely not understanding what the difference is between "traditional burial" and "composting". The way you spoke of burial ("leaving the body in the ground to rot") seems to have almost exactly the same elements as the one you favor, so I'm sincerely not understanding the distinction you're drawing.

However, all of this is tangential to the specific issue of this specific set of human remains, and what specifically should be done with them. Ideally, we would somehow be able to find a relative of the woman and ask them what they prefer; they may prefer cremation or some other means. And since it's their relative, their wishes would optimally be preferable, whatever they may be (it's their relative, they call the shots). But if we can't find a relative, it would make more sense to treat the remains with some dignity, and in our current society, "dignity" when it comes to remains involves either burial or cremation, as those are currently the conventional way you treat remains. Other ways to dispose of human remains exist (composting, shooting it into space, etc.), but not all are legal or practical. I note that composting is actually only legal in six US states, and Massachusetts is not one of them, so it wouldn't be an option open to Harvard in the first place.

I mean, I think we can all agree that a) the skin should not stay on that book, and b) the skin shouldn't just be thrown in the trash. So unless Harvard can find a next of kin, then they will probably end up cremating it (a full burial for a piece of skin does not strike me as the likely option, to be honest).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:56 AM on June 13 [2 favorites]


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