How Final Are Our Final Resting Places?
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Last week, President Hugo Chavez attracted attention for a different reason altogether. He ordered the remains of Simon Bolivar exhumed. White-coated technicians were shown on national television, opening Bolivar's wooden coffin. President Chavez suspects the South American independence hero died not from tuberculosis, as most historians believe, but was murdered.
Well, here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we noticed that Bolivar was just one of several notable dead not allowed to rest in peace.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Just this week, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were exhumed to determine if their remains are actually their remains. And earlier this month, American chess champion Bobby Fischer's body was exhumed in Iceland to settle a paternity dispute.
So we wondered: Is our final resting place no longer that final? On our tombstone, should rest in peace be replaced by rest in peace, question mark?
We reached out to some experts in death for their thoughts on what's going on.
Ms. RAY MADOFF (Law Professor, Boston College): I think that people are surprised to learn that in fact, their decisions with respect to their bodies are not as binding as they might think, you know, and they're not as binding as they are with respect to their property.
NORRIS: That's Boston College law professor Ray Madoff, and she says one Latin phrase immediately comes to mind: (speaking foreign language), the body belongs to no one. And Madoff says that when you die, at least under American law, it's the courts, not your family, who have ultimate control over your body.
Ms. MADOFF: I think that's a surprise to people, and I think it was probably a surprise to people 100 years ago when it was happening, equally as it is a surprise to people today.
NORRIS: But what has changed in the past century is the technology to get information from the dead.
SIEGEL: Mary Roach, the author of "Stiff," thinks the greater use of DNA evidence has made exhumations more common. She also points to a cultural shift.
Ms. MARY ROACH (Author, "Stiff"): We have moved farther away from this notion of, you know, the long, beautiful sleep that nobody dares interrupt. And because of things like "CSI" and vampire films, etc., maybe people are just a little more accustomed to the notion of partially decomposed bodies, or just the dead in general and - sort of the taboo might have begun to erode a little bit.
NORRIS: For writer and funeral director Thomas Lynch, he sees exhuming a body as a deep, human desire to connect with the dead.
Mr. THOMAS LYNCH (Funeral Director; Writer): And certainly, the impulse to disinter and to reconfigure or revise history is an effort to assign meaning to lives that are over, at least at one level, and yet continue to have meaning, you know, down through history.
SIEGEL: Lynch reminds us that digging into the dirt or into a tomb gives us the ability to find answers we missed the first time around. Exhumation, he says, helps us understand our beginnings by looking at someone's end.