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.
"At least in Sweden, the living are protected by laws on genetic integrity. We have no legal obligations to King Tut or other historical persons, but there is perhaps still integrity worth protecting," says Malin Masterton at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB).
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.
"I propose that the dead should be given moral status based on our respect for human life," says Malin Masterton.
The thesis is relevant both for the handling of remains of known historical persons and for the debate on all the anonymous human remains stored in universities, institutions and museums around the world. It is mainly indigenous peoples' who have reacted to the handling of their ancestors' remains. Demands on repatriation and reburial need to be met, both by archaeologists and museums.
In her thesis, Malin Masterton discusses ethical guidelines for the handling of human remains and makes suggestions for revisions. The basis for these revisions is that also the dead have an identity in the form of a narrative.
"Perhaps we need to consider how we deal with human remains of indigenous people, like the Sami skeletons that are stored in Swedish museums, as well as with human remains where there are no living representatives who can argue their case," says Malin Masterton.
Malin Masterton will defend her thesis on May 29. It is in English and can be read in full text at the Uppsala University website.
Malin Masterton is currently working at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB) at Uppsala University. www.uu.se