This week, the pale stone tomb in Ramallah that houses the remains of the former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat was pried open. Researchers plan to test samples of Arafat’s skeleton for signs of poison, after suspicious concentrations of the radioactive isotope polonium-210 were found on his clothes and toothbrush during an investigation this summer. Arafat’s final illness has been a source of speculation since his death in 2004; while medical records show his immediate cause of death was a stroke, many Palestinians believe he was murdered by Israel.
Arafat joins a macabre parade of recently exhumed famous figures. Just this month, Danish researchers announced that tests on the bones of the astronomer Tycho Brahe (exhumed in Prague in 2010) showed he probably perished of natural causes and not, as some had suggested, after being poisoned by his assistant, Johannes Kepler. Also in 2010, Simón Bolívar, Bobby Fischer and Nicolae Ceausescu were exhumed. Christopher Columbus was exhumed in 2003, Jesse James in 1995, Lee Harvey Oswald in 1981 — the list goes on.
Advances in DNA testing, biochemical analysis and other scientific techniques have unlocked the secrets of the dead from their blood, hair, teeth and bones in ways they never could have imagined. We can now use exhumations to lay to rest persistent rumors about the locations and contents of famous graves, and clear people like poor Kepler of murder charges. Exhumations can also tell us about the ailments of famous figures: fragments of Beethoven’s skull, left over from a 19th-century exhumation, have suggested that his poor health may have been the result of lead poisoning, and tests on Cosimo Medici’s bones showed he suffered from arthritis — not gout, as many historians had believed.
But when does scientific imperative shade into idle curiosity — and who gets to decide? Surprisingly, there’s little widely agreed-upon policy to guide us through this ethical quandary, and disputes have mostly been a matter for local courts. The regulations that protect living patients from scientific inquiry — designed to safeguard privacy and informed consent — generally disappear where the long dead are concerned. And yet, just because the dead feel no pain doesn’t mean they can’t be harmed.
In 2010, the Department of the Interior turned down a request to exhume the explorer Meriwether Lewis from federal land in Tennessee. A forensic scientist wanted to test the hypothesis that Lewis committed suicide after struggling with alcoholism, depression and syphilis. But if evidence of these conditions had been found, would the explorer — now a minor national hero — have wanted that information made public?
And what about the wishes of descendants? Arafat’s case is more clear-cut than most, because his next of kin are alive and supportive of the exhumation. What happens when the family tree has gone sprawling? During the Medici exhumations in 2004, at least one descendant objected to the proceedings, but other branches of the family dismissed his concerns. In another intriguing case, an appellate court denied permission to exhume John Wilkes Booth, in part because it argued that the relatives who sought the exhumation should not override the wishes of Booth’s next of kin, who had chosen his resting place more than a century before, and presumably wanted him to stay there. After that much time, are the living really part of the same family — or even culture — as the dead?
The Italian researcher Franco Rollo, who has worked on the mummified remains of the 5,000-year-old “Ötzi the iceman,” has argued that ethical considerations are minimal if remains are “old enough to belong to an historical and social epoch that is felt sufficiently different and far from the present one by most people.” Some disagree. The bioethicist Soren Holm believes that ethical concerns do apply to long dead people, especially identifiable ones: “In a certain sense these people still have a life. We still talk about them. There are pieces of research that could affect their reputation.”
In my opinion, exhumations can be a valuable research tool. The dead are dead, after all, while the living are still learning. But not all exhumations produce results of equal value, and we need more debate about when such digs are worthwhile. If conclusive proof of poisoning can be found from Arafat’s exhumation (a big if), the jackhammers might be justified.
But consider the request, motivated by a plan to analyze whether the Mona Lisa might be a disguised self-portrait, to disinter Leonardo da Vinci from his resting place in the Loire Valley. While it’s an intriguing question, is the answer really worth disturbing Leonardo’s grave? If we decide we don’t care, are we prepared for the idea that no one will care what happens to our own remains?
Some ethicists and legal scholars hope to create better frameworks for answering these questions, perhaps through the creation of “biohistorical review boards” that could analyze requests for exhumations and other analyses of the dead, much like the review boards that now weigh applications for studies involving living human subjects. Such boards might also consider whether future technologies could yield better results from exhumation — preventing people like Arafat from being dug up again every time there’s a scientific breakthrough.
For individuals — those with a legacy to protect, or secrets to hide — it might be time to consider a new section in the will. Or we could take a page out of Shakespeare’s book: his grave in Holy Trinity Church, in Stratford-upon-Avon, is engraved with the following curse:
Good friend for Jesus sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here!
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.
Bess Lovejoy is the author of the forthcoming book Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses.