I recently saw this story in the Waterbury Republican-American about the fate of a former slave’s bones.
If you’re not familiar with the story of Fortune, aka Larry, he was an African-American man who was a slave to an 18th-century Waterbury doctor. When he died, his bones were preserved by the doctor, and remained in the doctor’s family for five generations before being donated to the Mattatuck Museum in the early 20th century. Since then, Fortune has been in the museum’s collection, and was on display for a number of years. After it was decided that displaying the actual skeleton of a dead human being may not be quite proper, Fortune’s remains were removed from public view and safely stored while a search was mounted for his descendants, with the idea that the bones could be returned to them for proper burial. Un-fortune-ately, no living relatives were discovered, although a bit more about the man himself was unearthed, information that has been fashioned into a fairly interesting interactive exhibit at the museum.
Anyway, the issue raised now is what to do with Larry/Fortune’s remains — bury them or keep them above ground for future study, and if they are buried, where should they be buried and by whom.
It’s an interesting story all around, which also raises questions about basic human dignity — the same questions I find myself asking whenever I watch one of those Discovery Channel-type documentaries about digging up mummies, usually starring an overly enthusiastic and self-promoting Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s Secretary General of the country’s Supreme Council Antiquities — aka, the head grave robber.
Look, I understand why archaeologists need to dig up things and why we need to study history — and I really enjoy it, until it comes to the part with dead bodies. It seems that the dead and buried should, well, stay dead and buried, and not unearthed for the “profit” of others, be it in the name of science or self-promotion. Plus, there’s something inherently creepy about becoming “famous” long after you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, like Fortune/Larry.
Unless of course, you’re an eternal attention whore and want to be part of a traveling art exhibit …
To each his own, I suppose.