Who Owns the Dead?
Seems like a silly question. I mean, someone dies and is buried in a pre-bought burial plot inside a well groomed cemetery. The immediate family members are the ones who "own" the dead the relative as to final disposition. They are the ones who make frequent visits to it to pay respects and recall the living days, groom the site from debris.
But, over time, a long time (we are talking 50+ years) the burial site becomes forgotten to a large extent. Those who were impacted by the death of the loved one are themselves dead and the more remote family members really have no connection anymore. As time continues, there is a total disconnect and after hundreds of years, the plot may even vanish. So, at this point, who owns the remains? Some distant family member? What if there are none to be located?
So, when a anthropologist digs up a skeleton in an unmarked grave and tests reveal the remains are from a famous king or other person, does he own them? He found them. Are they now his personal property? Are they the descendants property, assuming some can be found? Are they the property of the province or state found in? Are they the property of the country found in?
Well, in the USA, there is the NAGPRA Act, that states if American Indian bones are found they must be returned to to descendant communities that can establish a link to them. This 1990 law now has been amended to include remains from truly ancient times even if no clear link to the remains exist. This makes the role of the archaeologists more difficult when they find bones dating back thousands of years. Now, any Indian bones will be subject to this act.
The remains and artifacts provide a wealth of information of data and scientific information, yet when found, they must be returned to a tribe even if no proof or link to them exists. This occurs before tests occur on the remains. The law has forced museums and federal agencies to return 40,000 remains and objects since 2009 to various Indian tribes. But not all remains are American Indians, there are 115,000 remains that are unidentified to any culture or group. Who owns them?
The legal battle was over a 9,200 year old skeleton, found in 1996 in Washington State. The court had to decide who owned it, the thinly connected Indian tribe or the educational community who found it. The court said the scientists had the right to examine the bones and burial site before handing them over to the tribe.
Nobody was really happy.