Ethics Of Exhuming Should The Departed Be Disturbed?

June 28, 1991|By Randi Henderson

REMEMBER WHEN people died, were buried -- and rested in peace?

If recent events signify any sort of trend, resting in peace may be a dubious proposition for the hereafter, especially if you were famous, or killed someone famous, or did something else that might leave people wondering years later about the circumstances of your life or death.

But just because President Zachary Taylor was exhumed June 17 to look for signs of arsenic poisoning (none were found) and Huey Long's assassin will be dug up in October seeking clues to that murder, not everyone agrees that exhumation is an idea whose time has come.

"I think it's time we do something about this diggin' up mentality that's pervading this country," said Louisiana state Representative Ralph Miller, who in a speech Tuesday night to his state legislature strenuously objected to a proposal that Long's accused assassin, Carl Austin Weiss, be exhumed. Scientists will be looking for physical evidence -- such as a brain tumor or drug addiction -- that might explain the apparently motiveless 1935 killing.

Although Weiss' family gave permission for the body to be exhumed, some question the propriety of disturbing eternal rest.

"We feel that it is very important that serious attention be paid to the ethical aspects of each proposed project," said Dick Levinson, community relations specialist at the National Museum Health and Medicine in Washington. "Someone has to address the question of what social good -- if any -- is served by doing a particular project of this kind. As a general rule, exhumation ought to be a last resort."

The issue of examining human remains is one about which Mr. Levinson is particularly sensitive. This spring, a panel of ethicists and scientists agreed it was appropriate to examine some of the museum's hair, bone and blood samples from Abraham Lincoln, in an attempt to clone Lincoln's DNA to find out if he suffered from Marfan's syndrome, a genetic disease.

Even though Lincoln did not have to be dug up, Mr. Levinson said that the museum has taken a lot of flak since the decision, especially from cartoonists and columnists making light of the scientific purposes.

"What troubles me most is the way these things get played out in the media," said Douglas Ortner, chairman of the anthropology department at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum. "We should do these things with dignity, not with hype. We shouldn't conceal it from the media, but we shouldn't make a public spectacle of it."

But Dr. Ortner also emphasized that studying human remains is a valid method of research with proven historic and scientific value. And he added that American ideas about burial for eternity are probably unique in the world.

"In central Europe, digging up remains is routine because cemetery space is limited," he explained. "Although the idea of ,, respect for the dead is a very common theme in civilized people, American burial habits are unusual."

Exhumation, Dr. Ortner believes, allows "people who are dead to continue to speak and tell us about themselves. To some extent, how you feel about this depends on how important you think history is."

Exactly how much the dead will tell depends on a variety of circumstances, said Donald G. Wright, Maryland's deputy chief medical examiner. Embalming and environmental conditions make the most difference, with damp, humid conditions hastening deterioration.

"After a year or so a well-embalmed body would be fairly well-preserved," Dr. Wright said. "After 10 years, there would probably be some soft tissue, maybe some recognizable facial tissue. After 25 years I don't think you'd find much that's recognizable. In that time a lot of fungus would grow and consume the soft tissue."

In a moist climate, most bodies "will go to skeleton" within 50 years, Dr. Wright added. The skeletal remains can show, for example, arthritis, bone tumors, once-broken bones and bacterial infections. Within a couple hundred years, even bone tissue will break down in most climates, leaving nothing of scientific value -- dust to dust.

The state medical examiner's office does about three or four exhumations a year, Dr. Wright said, usually seeking evidence in criminal cases. As examples, he cited the exhumation of a young child to document child abuse and the disinterment of a woman whose family suspected foul play. In the first case, evidence of broken bones suggested that child abuse had indeed occurred; in the second it was determined that the woman had died of natural causes.

According to managers of local cemeteries, the exhumation process can cost from $400 to more than $1,000 -- autopsy not included. But sometimes cemeteries will perform the service for free if the body is not returned to the grave and the site is donated back to the cemetery.

Among the more notorious exhumations in recent history:

* Lee Harvey Oswald was dug up in 1981 to discount persistent rumors that a Soviet spy was buried in his grave.

* The body of civil rights activist Medgar Evers was exhumed earlier this month, so that an autopsy could be performed. The original autopsy from the time of his 1963 death was lost and it is needed for the third trial of Bryon De La Beckwith, the accused murderer whose two previous trials have ended in hung juries.

* Two years ago, George Washington University forensic scientist James E. Starrs, who is also conducting the research on Long's assassin, dug up the bones of victims of the infamous Packer massacre.

Alferd Packer was accused of killing and cannibalizing members of his party traveling through Colorado in 1874, and the exhumed evidence indicated that the victims had all been killed and cannibalized by the same person, solidifying the case against Packer.

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