Respecting Unearthed Bodies

When the remains of enslaved people are discovered years after the burial, how should we continue to treat the bodies? This is an interesting conflict because society today is dealing with human remains that date back hundreds of years. The issue now becomes how to respect the religious traditions of the deceased individuals with the little information provided for the deceased. Enslaved people were often buried haphazardly without any respect for the various faiths held by the individuals. If the enslaved people were denied basic human rights their entire life, then it seems highly unlikely that their dead bodies would have been treated any better at the time of burial.

The African Burial Grounds in Manhattan reminds us of how the disrespectful treatment toward black bodies has been a part of American history as early as the original 13 colonies. According to Alondra Nelson, Manhattan has been the site of burial for African American bodies since the late 1600s. The originally segregated cemetery was named “Negro Buriel Grounds,” designated for enslaved people in New Amsterdam whose deceased bodies were separated from the city’s inhabitants by Dutch colonists. The remains were buried in areas that weren’t considered a part of the city at the time. When New York expanded into what is now Lower Manhattan, the city was constructed literally right on top of these resting places. (Nelson, 44)

Years after the burial grounds existed beneath the city, the corpses were a shocking discovery to modern citizens. Although it was an important unearthing of history, the digging of these corpses was met with push back. According to Nelson, the Descendants of the African Burial Ground (an activist group) believed that archaeologists were disturbing sacred grounds while attributing racial prejudice to the methods used in handling the bodies. As a result of the various concerns raised about uncovering these bodies, there grew increased attention to preserving the bodies and respecting the many faiths of the deceased. (Nelson, 46)

There is now a public memorial to remind us of the injustices committed towards individuals left behind in the former “Negro Buriel Grounds.” After viewing a video tour of the African Burial Ground Memorial, I couldn’t help but notice its relatively small size for a monument of historical significance. Perhaps this was done by the memorial’s architects to provide a minimalist aesthetic to reflect on the deceased bodies. However, monuments such as Mount Rushmore and the Jefferson Memorial are far more grandiose and receive more attention as a result. Why is that the commemoration of a few privileged men is given a brighter spotlight than the countless bodies of enslaved people? The memorial is buried away in the concrete jungle of a modern city, making the task of awareness for history more difficult than it already is.

This issue is not limited to New York because slavery existed throughout much of American history. In a Huffington Post article, Nina Golgowski reports on a discovery of nearly 7,000 humans buried beneath the University of Mississippi Medical Center in the state’s capital city. The current university campus is located on land that once was home to the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum (1855-1935.) According to Mississippi State anthropology professor, Dr. Molly Zuckerman, the bodies remain from nearly 35,000 individuals institutionalized during the asylum’s operation.  

Like the corpses found in Manhattan, there are many questions yet to be answered. Why have so many records of these patients been lost over the years? Is the lack of documentation suggestive of a societal disregard for the lives of mental health patients? Ancestors of these patients, like the descendants of the African Burial Grounds, are now attempting to understand their family’s dark past. The issue for both groups, however, is that the large gap in time between burial and discovery makes identification an almost impossible task.

Constructing a memorial for the deceased patients is one way in which their lives can be remembered in a similar fashion to the African Burial Ground Memorial. Zuckerman points out that the research team responsible for the discovery of the 7,000 bodies is determined to identify the remains of every individual. They propose to create a memorial that commemorates the lives of the deceased along with a genealogy research facility to further education. However, the location of the graves on public land means that the public would be burdened with the cost of upwards to $21 million. My initial reaction was that such an expensive proposal would not be widely accepted by taxpayers. After some consideration, however, I am led to believe that opposition to these efforts ignores the historical significance of these disrespectful burials. Considering the perspective of descendants, we can sympathize with their desire for closure. Imagine not knowing the entire story of your family’s history, only to find out that your relatives were not given a proper burial.

Although each burial site discussed has a much different historical background, there are parallels that can be made between both groups of people. In the case of Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum, Zuckerman states that many patients at the time “had relatives who couldn’t come and claim them or notified of their deaths in time.” The enslaved people of the “African Buriel Grounds” were left to a burial site that was not even considered part of the metropolitan area. The disregard for human bodies is a repeated offense throughout American history whose solutions will likely continue to be debated if more corpses are discovered.


Nelson, Alondra. “Ground Work.” The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome, Beacon Press, 2016, pp. 43-52.

Golgowski, Nina. “Up To 7,000 Bodies Found Buried Beneath University Of Mississippi Medical Center.” Huffpost, Accessed 5 December 2019.

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