On Human Remains | Discourse! May 2021 [transcript]

On Human Remains | Discourse! May 2021

Podcast with David G. Robertson, Breann Fallon, David McConeghy, & Andie Alexander (1 June 2021).

Transcribed by Andie Alexander

Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcasts/on-human-remains-discourse-may-2021/


Ritual, Death, Burial Sites, Commodification, Discourse

David Robertson (DR)  00:05

Welcome, welcome, welcome to Discourse! for May 2021. I’m your host, David Robertson. I’ll introduce you to our guests shortly. But let me just remind you what we’re here for. Discourse! is The Religious Studies Project’s monthly discussion of religion in the news, or rather, should I say how the news media is talking about religion this month. And I’ve got a star-studded, extra-large panel this month, and needing no introduction, I don’t think, but just for the sake of transcriptions, maybe we could move around the circle starting in Australia.

Breann Fallon (BF)  00:46

Hi, everyone. It’s Dr. Breann Fallon, who is currently a Co-Editor of The Religious Studies Project. But we will talk more about that a little bit later.

DR  00:58

And next to the US. Dave, why don’t you go next?

David McConeghy (DM)  01:06

I’m Dr. David McConeghy, and I am currently one of the Co-Editors of The Religious Studies Project.

DR  01:13

And finally:

Andie Alexander (AA)  01:16

I’m Andie Alexander, and I am currently the Transcription Editor and Web Editor for The RSP.

DR  01:26

Well, there’s some veiled things going on there—why don’t we just come out and say it? Why have we got editors past, present and future gathered here today? Bre?

BF  01:43

Well, I think it’s important for everybody to know that I’ve decided to step down from my current post as Co-Editor of The Religious Studies Project. It’s been an amazing couple of seasons heading up the ship together with Dave. But I’ve decided to focus on other things at the moment. However, I am going to be staying around with the RSP. So, I won’t be too far away at all, even though Australia is technically very far away. But that’s very exciting, because that means that there’s a hole to fill and that hole to be filled will be filled by…

AA  02:19

… by me, Andie, Alexander, I’m very sad that Bre is stepping down, of course. But I’m excited to be stepping up into this role. It’s been such a pleasure to work with Bre and Dave, as our Co-Editors. They’ve done a lot of excellent work for the RSP in the past couple of years, and I’m looking forward to helping Dave continue and expand those projects. I’m also very happy that Bre will still be part of the RSP team because she does such great work. And a little about me, I’m currently working on my PhD at Emory University. And my work focuses on the ways in which discourses of pluralism and inclusivity, specifically with regard to Muslims in America post-9/11, implicitly worked to marginalize and domesticate Muslims in the US. And so yeah, I’ve been a longtime listener of the RSP. And I’m very happy to be joining the ranks of Co-Editors and following in Bre’s footsteps.

DR  03:18

Andie, they really have done a great job. And if you think about how much of an ask it was to take over from something that was very much a passion project that was based around Chris and I and our network of people originally. To step into that was quite a big ask. So, I’m just glad that we got Bre for as long as we did, because, you know, she’s in demand. And if you think about, as well, we wanted to try an international team, and one thing we just never really considered was the demands that time zones put on people. So, if you think, at the moment, just to get the four of us in the virtual room at the same time, it’s first thing in the morning for some of them, and last thing at night for others, and the middle of the day for me—I mean, I drew the long straw this time. But if you think about that every time you record one of the little intros or outros or when you have meetings when you’re answering emails, it really is an additional toll, so it’s understandable when life demands a bit more time than then you’re able to give otherwise. But the great plus is that we get to bring Andie in now, and her energy and her ideas, into the team—keep this thing moving, keep it changing and evolving. So, I couldn’t be happier, and it’s very exciting to see, as I said, you know, three—this is the third iteration of editors. Andie’s the first person replacing an editor who wasn’t myself or Chris. So that’s, you know, it’s quite an important thing in itself. So yeah.

BF  05:12

Congratulations to Andie.

DR  05:13


DM  05:14

Yeah. Congratulations, Andie.

AA  05:16

Thank you! I’m so excited!

DR  05:19

We were asking quite a lot of Bre this episode, maybe because it might be the last one of these she does. Yeah. So next, we need to turn to something slightly less positive, I think, which is University of Sydney.

BF  05:36

Yeah, thank you very much for that, Dave. Look, if I’m perfectly honest, we, here in Australia, we are having a little bit of a crisis mode when it comes to studies of religion here in Australia. And I wish I could say it was just the Studies of Religion department at Sydney Uni that’s at risk, but unfortunately, it is actually almost a bit of a national epidemic. I mean, Religious Studies at the University of Queensland saw a number of closures a number of years ago, and Monash University canned Religious Studies last year. And now we’re seeing the potential closure of Religious Studies at the University of Sydney as part of a restructuring operation that is going to see six of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences school scaled back to five and the Department of Religious Studies and the Department of Performance Studies, are likely, we hope certainly, not to be closed entirely. And we’re seeing a number of other different disciplines being sort of absorbed into other schools being downsized. And a university spokesperson acknowledged the possibility of the restructure and closing a number of departments and programs. And they named to both Studies and Religion and Theatre & Performance Studies amongst those considered as options for closure. It’s important for us to talk about the fact that there has been no sort of actual plan that has actually been released to staff. So, everybody’s just feeling like they are just walking on a knife’s edge. And there is a campaign going around social media at the moment, Save USyd Arts, and it’s part of this broader discussion of the crisis, which is the complete disrespect of the humanities. And it’s not just something that’s happening here in Australia, it’s something that’s happening globally. And we look at the world sometimes we think, how’s it going so wrong, and perhaps that’s in the fact that we don’t champion studies such as that of religion, and particularly the secular study of religion. So, I think it’s really important that the religious studies community, The Religious Studies Project community, actually are aware of these impending, as we said, hopefully, we can stop it. But without sort of these hard, without any hard facts of what’s going on, it just feels like this great dark cloud looming, looming over us at the moment. And as an alumni of the Sydney Uni Studies in Religion Department, I know the amazing work that they do, the prestige that they have, and it’s something that I really hope that we can stop.

DR  08:22

Absolutely. And as you say, it’s not something that’s only happening in Australia. I mean, I was involved in the campaign trying to stop major cuts in Chester, here just recently, and there are other places which haven’t gone public yet but are in similar situations. And yeah, I absolutely echo everything that you’ve said. And if there’s anything that we can do, you know, beyond what we’re already doing, then you must let us know.

BF  08:58

Yeah, will do. Definitely. We might circulate a few sort of petitions and things like that through the RSP because the more voices we have, the better.

AA  09:06

Yeah, and I just want to add here that we have shared a fair bit of information on our Twitter page over @ProjectRS, about some of the events that are going on and different social media pages that you can check out that have the information about the petitions, links to all of that. So definitely go take a look at some of what’s there. And we will of course, be sharing more of that as information becomes available.

DR  09:36

Yep, absolutely. If we can’t do that with the RSP then… Yeah. Okay. Thanks for that, Bre. Let’s leave this housekeeping stuff for now and jump over into our news stories. And our first ones coming from Dave, and it concerns mass cremations in India. Dave?

DM  10:05

Yeah, I have been troubled as a lot of people have, by the rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths in India, which has been struggling to deal with the situation. And one of the challenges that they’re facing, which the US and other places faced, is that when people die, you have to dispose of the remains in some way. And the bodies that have accumulated, when it was happening in the US, were kept in freezer trucks, because the capacity of morgues and funeral homes was insufficient to process the number of people that were coming through. India is a very different situation, because in the Hindu and Muslim communities that are so prominent in India, cremation is, for Hindus, one of the primary means of disposing of bodies.

DM  10:59

And so, there was this article that I saw in Vox News, by Kamayani Sharma, “Why the world must witness pictures of India’s mass COVID-19 cremations.” And the thing that I really was struck by in this piece was the framing of the article as what role should we have in sharing images of the disposing of human remains. And so there has been a lot of coverage of this. Some of the coverage, the photographs have been done in an exoticizing way, in ways that present cremation to audiences, that our news-reading publics that are unfamiliar with this process. And one of the challenges of those pictures is that they run against, potentially, some of the people in India who are or have family members that may be involved with the disposal of these remains, that this is a potentially an intimate ceremony that is being broadcast nationally. And so, Time Magazine, for instance, had on its cover a picture of one of these cremation sites. And so, there was generated from this quite a bit of outrage from Hindu communities about the sharing of this image that was capturing potentially a very sensitive moment. This particular article by Sharma argues that there is no such prohibition against sharing those images. And then, in fact, death and cremation and the process of the disposal of remains, in India, as a very public circumstance. And that’s part of it. And I’m not an expert on Hinduism, but I know that this has been a very common circumstance, the way in which images of the departed and the disposal of human remains—this has been a huge issue in history courses, where you might have—the most famous example for me teaching American history is the Wounded Knee Massacre, because there are several very famous images of the frozen corpses of people that died in that incident. And so, we have kind of a long-standing tradition of being careful about showing images of deceased humans.

DM  13:37

And so, this conversation I thought, was one moment where religious studies sensibility is to try to understand how there could be these conflicting voices about it. Because Sharma’s point in the article is that to not display the pictures of the mass cremation of remains is one of the efforts to make opaque the number of deaths that are actually occurring, and that by refusing to show images, we are actually reducing the availability of information about how serious the problem is in India right now. And with lots of reporting about under-coverage of the number of deaths—that the number of deaths from COVID far exceed the reported numbers—Sharma’s point is that to raise those questions of the indecency or the other kind of words that we might use to describe why we don’t want those images there, that we have a kind of cross purposes there, and that the conflict between those is going to be exceedingly hard to resolve. And I think religious studies focusing on the kind of language games and the moves rhetorically that people are using is Sharma’s point. When we look at that news piece, it is really making a case for the power of images, even ones that are unpalatable or perhaps provocative and deeply intimate, that that maybe those images are really necessary in order to get to bigger issues. And I thought that that was a really powerful piece of journalism because it really put its finger on this problem of the fact that religious communities have very serious opinions about what happens to people when they die. And that trying to treat those seriously and sensitively from an analytical perspective is not a small task. It’s a very big task. And yeah, so that’s why I thought it was important to share that article today.

BF  15:45

It’s interesting that you bring that up, Dave, this idea of representation of the dead. And in that sense, there’s this question going on in that article, which thank you for sharing it. I found it really interesting. It was almost that question of when does memorialisation start? When does this process begin? Does that begin when that image is sent around on the interwebs with one particular sort of impetus behind it? Or is that something that started within the community? And it’s an interesting question, and it led on to another article that was actually sent to me by a colleague at the Sydney Jewish Museum, which is about this process of memorialisation. And it’s about a synagogue/memorial that’s actually just being erected. It just was just finished in this May 2021 in Babyn Yar, which is actually in the Ukraine. And Babyn Yar is actually a site of one of the most famous horrific massacres of the Holocaust, part of what’s called the Holocaust by bullets. On the 29th and 30th of September 1941, about 35,000 Jews were massacred in large pits, into the ravines, actually, in Babyn Yar. And over the next couple of weeks and months, an additional 100,000 Jewish people, POWs, people with disabilities, and Roma, were added into those ravines. And just in terms of religious studies, before we talk about the memorial that they’ve established, it’s important for us to actually go back and look at the date that those massacres occurred on because the 30th of September, one of the main dates of the massacre in 1941, is area of Yom Kippur. And that massacre is taking place on a very specific date for a very specific reason. It’s adding an element of trauma to that particular religious festival. But what’s interesting for us is that the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Foundation has actually built a synagogue at this particular site, in which it’s being used really as a park, a city park, at the moment in the Ukraine. And this synagogue, I really would encourage everyone to have a look at it. It’s by Manuel Herz Architects, and they’ve designed this wooden synagogue with so much symbolism of connection between the past and the present. Even though it’s a new Memorial, it’s being made of wood that is over 100 years old, in order to connect to the idea of the past and the present. But also, it’s the memorial isn’t an active space and active synagogue as the idea to bring the Jewish community back to this space where they’ve actually been forced out of in the past. So, it’s interesting that we’ve had these two very different examples of this idea of religion and memorialisation with COVID. But then with this memorial, it’s been built in the Ukraine as well.

DM  18:46

I was really captivated by the pictures in the architects walkthrough of this, that the synagogue was presented as a pop-up book, and then the design of all of the pieces of the architectural space though it will not fold up itself like a pop-up book, were designed with the intentionality that that is the origin of this. And so then to make the textual physical in that way, and to scale up the reading of the Torah into the frame of the building itself, I thought was deeply moving. They called it a cabinet of wonder, and I thought that that was a perfect description of it.

BF  19:38

I also was taken aback by some of the decoration where they’ve actually burnt into the wood, some imagery, particularly of particular symbolism, but also of sort of silhouettes of what looks like an Orthodox Jewish person and that idea of using fire and smoke in a very different way than it was used in the Holocaust is a very interesting symbolism there as well.

DR  20:04

Well, it’s reminiscent of Hiroshima. There’s similar images burnt on by the explosion, which have become a sort of a memorial in their own right. So, it’s an interesting comparison.

DM  20:25

I thought the emphasis on the chronology of the events was particularly captivating as well, they have a ceiling that has all of these constellations and stars so that when you look up at the at the ceiling that is painted with this mural, that it’s the night sky that would have been there on the days of the massacre itself. And so, this spatial play in this chronological play, that really emphasize a kind of translocation, like every effort to bring you from the present back to those moments. Very affecting.

BF  21:10

It’s very affecting, you’re right. And also, it’s one of those things where you realise the power of the information that has created the memorial, right? Knowing the date and knowing the year has created the memorial. And as you say, those images that you referred to in your article from COVID, there’s that question of information and how that is needed to honour those people that have been cremated in that way. And so, I loved the article, how it really played with this idea of respect and disrespect. And the idea of the present versus the future. And the memory was a very interesting piece.

DR  21:50

To go to the cremation piece, though, I wonder to what degree there is an element of Orientalisation at play—not so much in the article, but in the reactions that the articles talking about, where there’s definitely a reading of what’s appropriate from a Western position, you know? We’re, we’re outraged on their behalf, but maybe they’re not actually as bothered as we think they should be. It’s a phenomenon I’ve seen a fair few times. I mean, I think to an article I taught once about, it was about a Tibetan Buddhist teacher in, I think it was in LA, and he got embroiled, like, there was accusations of he was sleeping with one of his students, and he was drinking, a lot and things. And everybody was like, “oh, but you know, it’s, he’s been corrupted by the West. And it’s this sort of corrupt version of Buddhism.” Tibetans were going, “actually, no, this is fairly typical in Tibet, as well.” (laughs) But the Westerners were quite outraged that the West was corrupting this version of “pure Buddhism” that they had. And I wonder if this is a similar sort of situation. We feel that religion is about this, you know, treating bodies in a certain way, but we’re only really want to defend their right to do it in the same way.

DM  23:16

I think, having looked—I followed every link that was in the article, and several of them from IndiaFacts were the most excoriating of Western journalism—is the sense of commodification that they were particularly concerned about. That these images did not have the approval of the people who would have been involved in the proceedings. And so as public journalism goes, it seemed to violate some of the basic ethical tenants that you would get permission, that you would involve the families in those decisions. I think part of the challenge there with this these particular images is that the number of remains, the number of people that were involved in this is so extraordinarily large that this is—that potentially means that no pictures could ever be shown because how could you ever contact so many people to get all of their approval for such images? What’s really striking about the people that were arguing—and this is Deepa Bhaskaran Salem in IndiaFacts—were the exoticization of the cremation was really the instance where you know this, the sense of “can you believe what they’re doing over there”, right? This is how bad that it is that can you believe that they’re doing that way and I think part of that early is a disconnect between the West and the way that we treat death here, which is that it’s often or increasingly a private affair that is not shared publicly that you don’t see. And so open casket funerals that Catholics might have had, you know, for a long time in the United States are becoming increasingly less common. And so, I think there’s that kind of East-West dialogue, where Western media simply has a different approach to death and the display of processes associated with that, that makes that this especially uncomfortable, because you’re like, “Oh, look at what they’re doing over there, we can show that because that’s not us. They do it differently. So, like, let’s all point and look at that.” it becomes a very kind of extremely awkward, inter-cultural dialogue, there were I think both sides are, in some sense, speaking past one another about what the issues are. And then when you add the commodification on top of it, it makes it extremely fraught.

AA  25:55

Well, I do want to push back a little, and I think you’ll agree, Dave, because I definitely understand what you’re saying about how “western” media would approach death. And in this sense, sort of like the exoticizing—how it’s like, “oh, wow, how is this happening? Look at that!”—is certainly something to think about. But I would also say that the privatization of death rituals is more of a Protestant American thing given that many groups in the US and North America, especially indigenous groups, have very different approaches to death. But where media might be talking about what’s happening in India in a particular way, I’m reminded actually of a Native Hawaiian protests of the Thirty Meter Telescope, or the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea several years back now, because the exoticization of Native Hawaiian death rituals was not a “point and look at that”, or “let’s talk about that”, but rather, a dismissal of it and sort of a veiling of it because the construction of this telescope, or—they wanted to build it on Maunakea because of the particular views of the night sky that apparently are the best on that mountain. But Maunakea is a mountain whose summit is a sacred site and burial ground for Native Hawaiians.

AA  27:40

And I think one way to really think about this is a way in which it’s even discussed, if we look—or at least one aspect of approaching it—is looking at the discourse around the events and how the—whether it’s the media, the government, whoever—the actors involved are actually discussing what’s going on, because in a lot of what I saw in articles about the protests of the Thirty Meter Telescope, would always refer to the fact that Maunakea is “considered to be” a sacred spot by Native Hawaiians, or that some Hawaiians just dismiss Native Hawaiians practices and rituals, beliefs what have you, in favor of the construction of the telescope because it would help Hawaiʻi’s economic interests. And I was reminded when I was reading some of those things of Steven Ramey’s “Accidental Favorites” because it’s that subtle move that Maunakea “is considered by Native Hawaiians to be a sacred site,” right? Not that it is, which already shows you the ways in which certain exoticized practices are delegitimized, are dismissed in favor of whatever sort of agenda is driving the issue. Even if it’s an implicit move, those things are still happening. And to me, that’s something that is really good to pay attention to, because it gives us a way of talking about these events that isn’t necessarily getting in the weeds of what one might find to be more ethically palatable, perhaps.

DR  29:34

And to sort of tie these together a little bit, I think the images from the concentration camps in 1945 communicated the reality of that situation, and in a much more effective way than anything else. I mean, horrifying, though they are, you never forget that in a way that just reading figures doesn’t achieve.

BF 30:02

And it’s interesting that you say that because in the article and this is the last thing before we move on to the next story, but it was there was a very powerful phrase in the article that this is I can’t remember what it was Dave, maybe you remember it was a history of data or a story of data or something like that it was all about facts and figures and numbers and these images, humanised it in a way that not only is troubling in terms of what you were saying, in terms of the way death is dealt with differently, but it puts a human face to the fact that, for example, in Australia, we’re doing okay. And we actually closed our flights to Indian Australian nationals, and we were the only ones we wouldn’t let back home. And so those images, you’re talking about David, from the Holocaust, are all about humanizing the data, as well, which I think is really important.

DM  30:58

The phrase from the article is, “Indians still do not know the full extent of the havoc wreaked by the virus, because of what one expert calls a massacre of data with hospitals, public officials, and even family is believed to be under-counting and suppressing the number of cases and deaths.” So, I think the analogies to the images of the Holocaust and concentration camps, is really affective there, in the sense that we are witnessing, potentially the obscuring of the numbers on the ground, and that the photographs do work, important work, to show that the facts on the ground are otherwise.

DR  31:41

And we’re going to stay with the theme of human remains for (laughs) the next story, which is about the MOVE group—I’m going to say group—and some uncomfortable things which have come to light recently. I’m going to give a little bit of background because this is a really little known story, actually. I came across it maybe five years ago, speaking to Susan Palmer, scholar of new religions and the law, and she told me about this. And I did a double-take as “Did you just say that they bombed them?” And she said, “Yes, they bombed them in 1985.” And this is in Philadelphia, and I went and read a little bit about at the time. But it’s recently come to light, so a few people might have heard about them. They were a Black separatist, religious group. They certainly sold themselves as predominantly a religious group, other people have described them as anarchoprimitivist or Black separatists—they’re all of those things. They were started in Philadelphia in 1972, by a guy called John Africa, which is a name so on the money for the leader of a group like that in Philadelphia in 1972.

DR  33:17

They’re often described as being similar to the Black Panthers, but they’ve also got a strongly sort of primitivist Christian, but nature-centric so that their religion is based on natural law, that all life comes from Mother Nature, or Mum Nature, as they say. And as a result, all animals are of equal value. They sort of reject a lot of aspects of society, they promoted raw food, and the right of all beings to sort of defend themselves and have freedom. As a result of this, their children tended to wander around naked, and they didn’t have anything to do with local municipal services, they just threw all of their garbage in the garden in the yard, which quickly attracted cockroaches and rats. They would adopt local stray animals which then gathered into a pack which roam the neighborhood, and this is like a middle-class, Black neighborhood. And so, they started to get complaints to the police about them. They also had a tendency to use a loud hailer all hours of the day and night to preach their message. So, they basically, the original complaints were not racially motivated, but the local mayor at the time was a notorious racist—just trying to find his name now. And they ended up having a shootout in 1978 between them and the police when they wouldn’t give them up. One policeman was shot, and nine people were jailed from the movement for his death. So, nine people were jailed for Murder III. And those people—two of them died in jail, and the others were released between 2018 and 2020. The last one was just released just a little over a year ago, they’re all in their 60s now.

DR  35:45

The house they were living in was destroyed in this you know, it was not completely destroyed, not in the way that it will be later. But they moved to another house in a different region in Philadelphia, which the same situations began sort of escalated, ending in an arm siege in May the 13th 1985. So it was that 46 years ago? Is my maths correct? No 36 years ago, which ended with them dropping to one-pound bombs on the top of this house which had some fuel and blew up and destroyed the entire house. It was allowed to burn to the ground. According to the local police this was because they were concerned the firefighters would get short at. According to many, many others this was because the firefighters were told to let it burn to the ground by the police. The remains of the house were flattened the day after—like, even though it was an active crime scene, the police flattened it the day after. And so, everybody, or no, 11 people in the house, which I think was almost everybody—six adults and five children—all died. And the fire spread and destroyed 65 other houses in the area.

DR  37:38

The thought although this wasn’t the FBI, it was the police, the FBI supplied some of the explosives. Now this, contextually, you’ve got to think about this as being somewhere between Jonestown but before, you know, between Jonestown and Waco. So, it’s after Jonestown people are concerned about what’s happening in these “cults”—and I’m doing quote marks in my head when I say that, of course. And but they haven’t got to the point where the FBI have been shown to be you know that using strong arm tactics with them is it causes more harm than it solves, right? So, we’re somewhere in the middle of all that. Yet, it’s exactly the same story: That it’s people who are annoying, but there’s no really good claims of, you know, of abuse or anything. There isn’t a lot of strong reasons to, to have an arm siege and bomb people. And it’s in the name of saving children that they go in. And of course, as with at Waco children are killed in this, you know, action which is claimed to be for their benefit.

DR  38:56

Okay, so jumping forward, why is this come back to light? Well, the first thing that happened was that they started to get released. And this put some press attention back onto this story after a long, long time. And then there was a statement which came out saying that they were going to have a national—well, not national—Philadelphia was going to have an annual day of remembrance for this on May the 13th. A lot of people thought, “Oh, this is very odd.” A few days later, the story broke that the University of Pennsylvania, in collaboration with the Penn Museum, had actually been storing the bones of some of the victims since the time of the bombing in 1985. They apologized specifically for having them. It turns out that it was the bones of two of the children who were killed in the bombing were being stored by the museum and the university and, in fact, appeared in a video asset for an anthropology course at the University of Pennsylvania, where, you know, a lecturer shows the bones as an example of the kind of anthropological material. Now and there is some corruption. It looks like the actual lecturer, let me get the person’s name. Alan Man, he was a professor at Penn, and Janet—I think it’s pronounced “Mong”, it’s M-o-n-g—who is the keeper, the curator of the Penn Museum seem to have kept the bones without being given permission to do so.

DR  41:17

Nonetheless, this… I can remember, even 20 years ago, when there was a lot of concern about, for instance, having the human remains belonging to African tribes that people had taken back during the sort of height of colonialism on display in museums. You know, and the argument was being this showed how, you know, we retreated them as less human, that we wouldn’t take somebody from the west and put their child’s bones on display in a museum. And that’s exactly what we were doing. And yet, and yet, it turns out that even in 2021, we’re doing specifically that, and again, you know, if you want to make any connections with how certain institutions view members of the Black community, especially if they’re involved with weird religions, or if they criticise capitalism, whether they view them as fully human or not, either. But yeah, so I thought that was an interesting story, not only because of the human remains aspect, which seems to be the theme of today, but also, you know, a little bit of reflection on what it is we do when we do anthropological work. Any thoughts about this guys?

DM  42:41

As an Americanist, as this is a lot more common than we’d like to admit that it is. The handling of Native American remains, for instance, has been a huge issue at museums across the US. For this particular one, I think it evokes a lot of the conversations about ‘Strange Fruit’ is the term that is often used. And so, in the article you cite from the Philadelphia Inquirer, the article by Abdul Ali Muhammad, says at the end, Black people, our bodies, and our remains are not academic Strange Fruit. We are not play things nor instruction devices for anthropologists, and our sacred vessels deserve to rest in peace to be respected. I think that’s a sentiment that a lot of Native American groups have made and a lot of African Americans have made towards museums that hold relics of Native American and indigenous and enslaved persons, that there is a long history of anthropology and museum studies and curatorial kind of services, not recognizing the dignity of the human remains that they are encountered in, failing to address those, in ways—the most striking point of what you said, David, was that, you know, these were items that that were, I don’t know, that ‘actively’ is the right word, but were being used as instructional aides is deeply, deeply troubling.

DR  44:26

And the other members of move had no idea about this until they came out in the news in 2001. And Strange Fruit as well, Dave, I mean, the choice of words there is very striking. It’s clearly a reference to the lynchings. So yeah, quite astonishing. We’ve, yeah, we’re 40-odd minutes already. I think maybe we can’t fault that really, can we? We can just wrap up at this point. Sometimes these are (laughs) more fun than this one, you know, important stuff happening, and incredible actually how many similarities there were between these three stories. So hopefully, we’ve given the listeners some things to think about. And some things to do in terms of supporting Sydney specifically, but also any other department of religious studies. The importance of the study of religion on the humanities and social sciences more broadly has never been clearer. So, let’s just bear that in mind. Great. And thanks for joining me early in the morning, late at night, wherever you are. I’m David Robertson. Thanks for listening.

Citation Info:

Robertson, David G., Breann Fallon, David McConeghy, and Andie Alexander. 2021. “On Human Remains | Discourse! May 2021”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 1 June 2021. Transcribed by Andie Alexander. Version 1.0, 1 June 2021. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcasts/on-human-remains-discourse-may-2021/

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