Reflections on Death and Burial
Dr. Talia Shay
In my presentation for the research group on Death Thresholds in the Minerva Center for Interdisciplinary Studies of the End of Life I introduced the archaeological discourse of the last few decades concerning mortuary practices. On the one hand, few would doubt that mortuary practices have an important scientific value for the archaeologists that are enabled to access people's lives and deaths in the past. Yet, the apparent 'ghastly', 'corpse-snatching' and 'tomb-looting' nature of archaeological activity has simultaneously exposed it to criticism. There is now an extensive archaeological literature debating the ethics of digging up, displaying and studying human remains.
This ethical debate is related to postmodern approaches in archaeology, especially to what is called indigenous archaeology. According to it, archaeology has ceased being an empirically grounded cultural approach and has become a domain of experience that considers also the different points of view of the descended communities, indigenous and others, on their heritage. Furthermore, these approaches point to the connection between the past and the present and oppose concealing different pasts.
In my presentation I also reflected upon my personal attitude towards digging human remains, I have concluded that although there are contemporary archaeologists who feel aghast by grave digging, I am not repulsed by death. Handling human bones, on the contrary, makes me, not only aware of the time that has passed but also emotionally closer to my kinsmen.
This presentation is a part of the book I am writing on death and burial of contemporary Israeli groups – an ultra-religious group, a small community of immigrants from the former USSR and a community of Israeli-Palestinians.