Archives as Human Remains, Human Remains as Archives

Jay D. Aronson, in his Who Owns the Dead? The Science and Politics of Death at Ground Zero (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), writes, “Human remains have political, cultural, and emotional power” (p. 3). His study of the efforts to recover the remains of the dead at the World Trade Center after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 while trying to determine how to memorialize the victims and re-develop the site explore this power in detail. He also notes that the “recovery, identification, and memorialization of the victims of the September 11 World Trade Center attacks brought science to bear on the questions of identity, politics, and memory” (p. 19). This is an important, insightful study of the politics of memory and memorials, one demonstrating how complex remembering and celebrating can become. Archivists have long recognized the connection of power to record making and keeping, and they will discern in this study many aspects that are familiar to their own work and the obstacles they sometime encounter in doing this work. We learn about advocacy, competition among architects, the sometimes-convoluted relationship between government agencies, private citizens, and for-profit businesses, and the role of the media.

However, the focus of the book is on the human remains. Here is an example of the author’s sense of how we have transformed the manner in which we deal with such materials: “What is clear is that DNA technology has irrevocably altered the way we memorialize the dead, whether their remains have been identified or not. Whereas a tomb of the unknown, in a war memorial, or a common burial ground valorizes collective sacrifice to the nation, the repository in the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum is the physical embodiment of the technological dream that unidentified remains may one day be made personal again, and returned to their families. The repository is not a final resting place, even though many of the remains will never be claimed. Rather, it is a storage facility, albeit a dignified one, supporting an ongoing forensic investigation by a government scientific laboratory” (p. 255). Archivists might pause over this assessment. Technology has changed and is transforming the way we think of archives and the places, real and virtual, they reside in. The notion of digital forensics is also affecting how we perceive archival permanence. And the notion of permanence, as in archival value, has been questioned for a long time.

I recently buried my father and this caused me to reflect on the notion of our documentary remains and the idea of memory. It is difficult, at times, to deal with how transitory memory is and how easily distorted it can become. Thinking about this, makes one realize why the families of the 9/11 dead fought so hard for having a voice in how we memorialized the attacks. We also must recognize the emotions and concerns moving documentary sources to an archives can cause for the surviving family members and acquaintances. Developing empathy for such aspects of our work can only make us better archivists.


One thought on “Archives as Human Remains, Human Remains as Archives

  1. Thanks for a very informative review. Your final comments struck a powerful chord with me. I learned by experience how much emotion was generated by the act of placing one’s own or one’s loved one’s personal papers in an archives. Had I had more instruction in these matters, I would have been a better representative of my institutions and a more empathetic human being. I would have asked more often about why papers were saved (and were not) and about what was especially valued in these materials and why. Of course, the idea of death, especially my own, is much less an abstraction than it was in my youth and I now deal with the archival remains of my own life, not others’ lives.


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