August 3, 2011

Thoughts Regarding Bones/ Remains/ Mausoleum

A few thoughts regarding the blog entry on August 2 about the Utari Communal Mausoleum Memorial Service:

The “Utari Communal Mausoleum” is translated from “ウタリ共同納骨堂”. Although 納骨堂 is apparently technically a “charnel (house),” I figured that most people would not know what a “charnel house” was and so opted to go with the more easily recognizable “mausoleum” instead (納骨堂 is literally “ place/store” “ bones” “ hall”).

I had also originally used the term “bones” in reference to the remains stored at the mausoleum. A friend active in Ainu and indigenous issues pointed out that it may be more appropriate to use “ancestral or human remains” instead of “bones.” Perhaps given the background of grave-robbing anthropologists, it may be better to ensure that a greater sense of respect is conveyed – they were, after all, living breathing people. It still surprises me how some people could either forget that or not care. Thus the previous blog post was updated to “(ancestral/human) remains” in place of bones.

The return of Ainu ancestral/human remains is still a contentious and unresolved issue, and is one of the subjects of discussion by the government Panel on Promotion of Ainu Policy. A 2002 article in the Japan Times discusses the issue, but there seems to be little progress even since then. A good read would also be “Gakumon no Boryoku: Ainu Bochi wa Naze Abakareta ka” (The Violence of Scholarship: Why Were Ainu Graves Desecrated?) by Tetsuya Ueki published in 2008 – though I am ashamed to admit I have not yet read it myself.

Gakumon no Boryoku

Speaking personally, I am always greatly disturbed by the ways in which people attempt to control and violate other people’s bodies, even after (especially after?) death. I am always horrified by the stories of lynchings in the American South where whites would cut off the body parts (ears, fingers, genitals) of their victims to display in their homes. I once saw a documentary of Native American sacred sites where one man was fighting off police to shovel dirt onto the exposed skeletons on display at an “Indian Graveyard” tourist site, a desperate attempt to protect some sort of dignity – it had quite a profound impact on me. I now try to avoid any dead bodies in museums, including even Egyptian mummies. Who and how do we decide when it is acceptable to violate someone’s remains? Personally, I would not like to be dug up after I’m gone, whether it is 10, 100, or 10,000 years after the fact.


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