Donated Bodies: CRRJ Director to co-direct new project, examining treatment of human remains

This summer, CRRJ Director Margaret Burnham is co-directing a project that seeks to evaluate the ethical concerns raised by the widespread U.S. practice of disposing of executed and deceased prisoners’ remains by donating their bodies to science, medicine or archival purposes.

The 8-week endeavor, titled The “Donated” Bodies of Deceased Prisoners and the Wrongfully Executed: A Pilot Project in Ethics, Law, Human Remains and Memory, will also be led by Professor Kris Manjapra, Center for Law, Equity and Race (CLEAR) Fellow, and Stearns Trustee Professor of History and Global Studies in the departments of History and Cultures, Societies and Global Studies.

“Kris and I are exploring a space where our interests converse, and perhaps, converge,” said Burnham. “Furthering his work in the reparations field, Kris will consider reparations for the vast collections of human remains, and bodily derivatives, of colonized or enslaved peoples that are held in museums and other repositories.

CRRJ’s work on historical racist violence, including state executions, has opened a lens onto practices, sanctioned by US law, that demarcate and dishonor the bodies of incarcerated people of color.

She added that her contribution to the project will be “a subimage in Kris’ larger map.”

Four student researchers will work with Manjapra and Burnham over the summer.

The project will look specifically at two key areas. Firstly, cases in which the deceased were incarcerated persons of color who were subjected to unfair and unconstitutional legal processes based on their race, including state execution.

Cases like that of John Goss.

Goss, a Black man, was convicted of raping a white woman in 1922 in North Carolina. After the assault was reported, Black residents of the town where it took place were banished, and the National Guard called upon by the governor to protect the defendant Goss. A quick trial resulted in a death sentence.

A local newspaper reporter, present at his execution, noted that Goss “looked the part of the picture of that ‘mean nigger’ conjures up. . . short, squat, thick-bodied, and with the face of a gorilla. Even the eyes were muddy with the diffusion of the color of his skin.”  They then went on to describe how after four electric shocks, no life remained “in the black carcass,” which was “dumped into a basket” and sent to the local medical school for dissection.[1]

“The Goss case demonstrates the state’s power to proliferate and entrench ideas about race, identity, personhood and dignity even upon death,” said Burnham.  “These are historical cases, but the policies and practices they enacted have persisted for decades.”

Researchers will also explore the treatment of hundreds of thousands of bio artifacts, obtained through the exercise of racial and colonial rule and amassed in museums and scientific institutions across the global West.

“We are unearthing concrete cases of how law and science invented the category of the ‘unclaimed body,’ and how this category was used to carry out postmortem racial violence on executed persons, deceased prisoners, and their surviving kin,” said Manjapra, on this latest endeavor.

Our research is pushing us to contend with the injustices committed against the dead, and what it still means for us today.

Researchers will review the literature on the history, ethics, and laws pertaining to the use of executed dead persons and deceased prisoners for scientific purposes.

It is hoped that the project’s research will enrich ongoing conversations about the social history of racialized execution and long-term imprisonment in the United States, and advance efforts to design reparative measures that address the systemic legacies of these practices.

The project follows from and builds on a symposium held at Northeastern on April 12, 2024.  Titled Museums, Race and Reparative Justice, and designed and organized by Manjapra in his capacity as a Fellow of the Center for Law, Equity and Race at the Northeastern University School of Law, the symposium brought together international experts and practitioners to explore current ethical and legal interventions to reclaim and protect ancestral remains of colonized and racialized persons who are currently housed in institutions around the world.

Read more about the symposium and watch the discussion here and here.

[1] Cited in John Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town,  2d ed. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1949, orig 1937), 70.

Above: Protesters outside The British Museum in London, UK. Photo courtesy of X/Afrikan Reparations APPG, @appg_ar Oct 19, 2023.

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