Ethical treatment of human remains and relatives of the missing in Spain‬‬‬

Natalia Maystorovich Chulio, University of Sydney: 

‘Human remains are not just another artefact, they have potency, they are charged with political, evidentiary and emotional meanings…’ (Cassman et al., 2006:1).

As the above quote reflects, human remains are never neutral; they are imbued with meaning. There is an expectation that those working in medico-legal forensic work need to be ‘apolitical’ and ‘impartial’ (Cox et al., 2008:24). However, in the context of exhuming clandestine graves in Spain, the researcher’s own familial heritage and the existence of missing relatives in mass graves in general provided a personal experience and tie to the community in which the investigation was being conducted. This meant that personal feelings needed to be acknowledged reflexively and the impact this may have on the collection of data considered. The recovery of human remains requires researchers and those interacting with them in the field to acknowledge the ethical implications and their obligations to individuals and the wider community. This has been at the heart of a number of studies (Walker, 2000; Fforde et al., 2002; Scarre, 2006; Tarlow, 2006). One primary concern is the dignified treatment and care of bones. This is particularly important in the Spanish example, because relatives and the community are present during the exhumation process. On another level, ethical concerns can emerge during fieldwork around working in an international collaborative setting; issues around social media and the use of images; and the dynamics of doing research with an organisation where power imbalances are prevalent in the researcher–organisation relationship.

This research project is informed by 22 months of participant observations of investigations, searches, exhumations and reburials of victims of enforced disappearance throughout Spain. It involved 32 semi-structured interviews with different stakeholders who came into contact with the exhumation and reburial process at a number of sites. Further documentary analysis of legal and historical texts provided a context for the researcher.

International Collaboration

Research was conducted with organisations where international researchers formed part of the collaborative team exhuming remains and dealing with bereaved relatives. Issues around cross-cultural sensitivities, individuals’ moral compasses and perspectives on appropriate behaviour were observed. The research involved dealing with a highly politicised and charged atmosphere whereby bereaved families were always present at exhumation sites. This required the researcher to take emotional and physical care in the handling both of remains and the families who were present.

On one occasion at an exhumation site the international media attended to conduct interviews about the work of the organisation and the remains that had been exposed. I was working in a grave exposing the skeleton of an individual buried in a clandestine single grave. An international student was speaking with the journalist and asked me to hand her the patella (knee cap) of the individual so that the journalist could see and touch the remains. This was problematic on several levels. Actions like this trivialise and sensationalise the seriousness of the research site. Remains should never be removed from a gravesite until all photographs and evidence have been collected. The student proceeded to hold the bone and said ‘Here, you can touch it’. I contend that this was insensitive to the relatives who were observing the exhumation, because this may have been the remains of their missing relative that they had waited 80 years to find. Evidently it did not register with the student that the family were mourning.

The act of showcasing a family member’s remains by the student showed a lack of awareness of the forensic protocol pertaining to the exhumation of human remains from clandestine graves. This may be explained by lack of experience in medico-legal remains recovery, given the Spanish context often does not involve judicial proceedings. However, my previous experience gained from an exhumation involving an international judicial order had informed my professional and moral understanding of what was appropriate in the context. This experience and knowledge is shared by various specialists working in the field. Because of the nature of exhumations of clandestine burials, those in the field are the first witnesses to the crime. Therefore, meticulous documentation and photographic evidence should be collected before any remains are disturbed in the forensic context of the grave (See Skinner et al., 2002). Researchers must acknowledge their position in the field and the impact of their actions on the evidence that is collected regarding the crime and whether it will form part of legal evidence in future (Congram & Wolfe Steadman, 2008). Finally, as stated, the impact for onlookers and relatives must be recognised, because in Spain the exhumation sites are open and public.

Social Media and Images

Ethical issues abound in the use of images and social media when dealing with human remains. The action of photographing physical remains to post on social media or to share with family and friends is an area of concern. In many cultures, images of the dead and physical remains have deep significance. Generally speaking, in Spain it is not appropriate to take selfies with or post images of remains. Human remains recovery is a novel experience and the current cultural practice of uploading status updates and images to social media often fails to recognise the ethical implications of such actions.

Researchers must always recognise that the individuals we are exhuming are the relatives of someone. It is inappropriate to photograph remains as if they were mere objects for mass consumption. It is disrespectful and trivialises the death of the individual or those in mass graves in Spain. Additionally, the mass consumption of images from graves has created a situation whereby the exhumation process triggers traumatic memories in families. This has meant that images which once had an impact are now considered commonplace as society becomes voyeuristic in its experience of the suffering of families and the dead. This occurred at an exhumation where national and international media struggled to obtain images, including of the private suffering of the elderly daughter of a victim of enforced disappearance. The association advised all media teams that when the family approached the grave, no photos or audio could be obtained to ensure the privacy of the daughter of the victim. However, a documentary maker attached a lapel microphone to the elderly woman’s clothes without informing her or anyone what they had done. They later requested images to match with the audio for a documentary on the exhumation. The ethical concerns in the treatment of this woman spoke volumes to the lengths to which some in the media would go to obtain the moment of horror and suffering for mass consumption.

Dynamics of Research Conducted with Organisations and Communities

A particular dynamic exists when conducting research as a volunteer with an organisation. The organisation guides the research and provides access to the field, but on the other hand, it can constrict or constrain access to sites and people. The researcher sometimes lacks the power to demand unfettered access to ensure that all relevant data is collected to create a complete picture of the field. In my research, I relied on the organisation granting access to both the field and research participants. While working with this organisation I was allowed access to individuals and bereaved families and communities during the process of obtaining testimony, at exhumations and reburials. However, there were times when access was constrained. After I had worked with the organisation for four years, the Executive decided to change the rules of access for international researchers collaborating in the recovery of human remains. Access was provided on the basis that researchers also voluntarily conducted work to assist them in the maintenance of archives and information systems. This voluntarily labour ensured that workloads were manageable for the organisation, given the lack of funds available to hire individuals. However, this constrained my project because international researchers were no longer permitted to attend searches for remains.

The impact of this decision meant that I could no longer access the field site to observe the continuing impact of exhumations in different communities in Spain. For example, in 2016 the team returned to a site where an exhumation had been undertaken the year before. The team had recovered six individuals from two graves. Testimony provided by locals pointed to the existence of a grave containing between 20 and 30 individuals killed in 1939. The archaeologist said that when they returned, a local informant had been told by fellow townspeople not to provide any further information about the whereabouts of graves in the area. What was significant about this interaction was that, in my experience, when a community observes a successful exhumation they will be more accepting and encouraging of future exhumations. They are aware that there is minimal impact on the community because no violence or aggression is involved in the process of retrieving the missing. However, in this community they were not open or happy for further location of the missing, because of the implications of having a mass grave in the community. This highlights the complexities of fieldwork and recognises the power imbalances that are constantly being negotiated between the researcher and the researched community.

Ethical considerations involving the recovery of human remains and dealing with relatives of the missing require careful consideration of actions performed by researchers. Verdery (1999) explains that physical remains are imbued with meaning through the construction of narratives based on social and cultural beliefs. This forms the basis of relations between the living and the dead. It is founded on the understanding that researchers are obligated to take into account their impact on the field and the people that they come into contact with. The researcher has a duty of care not only to the remains being handled but also to the relatives of the missing. Fieldwork involving the incorporation of international collaborators, social media, use of images and the dynamics of conducting research with an organisation illustrate important ethical implications about working in the field.

Natalia Maystorovich Chulio is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. Since 2012 she has worked with a number of associations in Spain to an attempt to draw attention to the difficulties experienced by surviving victims and their relatives in the recuperation of the missing.

A full list of references can be obtained from the author.


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