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Working with human remains? 
6th-Nov-2011 12:54 am
To biological anthropologists and archaeologists, how did you get over the...awkward uneasy feeling of working with human bones and remains?

I've been working in a zooarchaeology lab sorting bones of various animals and working my way up to large mammals, but recently I sort of got thrown a bombshell with human bones.

Usually I don't have a problem with human bones, I'm fine handling replicas of skulls and seeing the full skeleton laid out during discussions sessions, but alone in a lab handling a box of human bones, I get this uneasy feeling. Then when I open the box and start to sort them, I feel incredibly guilty and want to apologize to them. I know it's a bit silly right?

I don't know if it's because I'm too sensitive or something, I mean I can still work with bones, it's just that I always feel incredibly apologetic and I handle them with a lot more care than I do with animal bones.

So to people with more experience, how did you like "get over" the guilt or awkward feeling or did you never experience it and I'm just too sensitive an the odd one out?
6th-Nov-2011 08:19 am (UTC)
I never had an awkward uneasy feeling.

As part of my Certificate in Field Archaeology I had to spend some weeks processing. Initially it was finds from Lundenwic which turned out to me more organised than I'd expected; limewashed daub from the walls, specialist butcher's establishment. With masses and masses of beef rib bones to wash the mud off. I don't think I've ever been more bored.

Effectively as a reward for sticking with it, the person in charge gave me some human bones to wash, and I got fascinated. There were diagrams on the wall and I started using them to identify what I was washing. Then she gave me skulls, and they were so difficult to clean that they were a real challenge, and I loved it. She commented later that she had a number of volunteers who would happily clean the rest of the skeleton but not the skull, but that left me slightly baffled.

The consequence was that as soon as possible I signed up for a course in Human Skeletal Remains in Archaeology - a hands-on evening class that provided important bone reports; one set made its way into Scientific American. Best of all I loved reassembling broken skulls; it took the challenge of jigsaws to new levels - no picture on the box, not much in the way of picture on the pieces, no guarantee that they fit and missing pieces.

But through all this we never lost respect for what we were working with. Two subjects in particular moved me: a Christian Norse from Orkney who was a leper who died in his early twenties, and a Neolithic flint miner, also about 20 when he died, whose body showed that he had been climbing ladders with a heavy load on one shoulder since he was about 12. He stuck in my mind so much that eventually I wrote a song about him that is really for all miners everywhere, and I sing it regularly.

So, no squick ever.
6th-Nov-2011 10:00 am (UTC)

And no guilt. We would start off with a box of anonymous bones, and by the time we had finished, we would have a person. We were mostly interested in lifestyles, so by the end we would know a lot about them - and in a sense know them and what sort of life they had led, far more than I know about the people whose names I see on gravestones in the local cemetery. These were people, individuals, and we were giving them back their individuality.
6th-Nov-2011 10:37 am (UTC)
(further comment)

The result of the song mentioned above is that there are now hundreds of people in England who know his story. In his lifetime he wasn't even important enough to mine the flint, just carry it up to the surface, day after day, from the age of 12 until his death at about 20; now he is widely known. That is the consequence of my studying his bones.
6th-Nov-2011 08:43 am (UTC)
I don't have a lot of experience with handling human remains, but they've never made me uncomfortable, I just think they're really neat!
6th-Nov-2011 09:32 am (UTC)
Well, I've felt things similar to what you're feeling, and apart from the guilty feeling it doesn't sound like a bad thing that you feel it.

A lot of the time when I work on human remains, particularly if I'm by myself, I feel this reverence that's different than most other archaeological work. There's guilt only if I feel I've damaged them in some way - I worry a lot more over human bone if I drop it or if it breaks as I'm cleaning it. Again, as long as it's not hindering your ability to work I don't think that's a bad thing.

Working with human remains isn't for everyone - some are squicked out, some feel morally wrong, some people are too anxious to. But unless you find you don't enjoy it, you shouldn't feel that having emotions when touching human bone makes you less professional or less capable.
6th-Nov-2011 10:07 am (UTC)
If you feel like apologizing to them (or talking to them), why not go ahead and do that? You're probably working alone in the lab anyhow, no one's going to look at you funny, and it might help dispel the unease and make it less stressful.
6th-Nov-2011 10:17 pm (UTC)
Haha actually that's a pretty good idea. I might actually do that next time, even though I'll seem pretty crazy talking to bones...
6th-Nov-2011 10:50 am (UTC)
This isn't really my area, but I did take a course at uni that involved a lot of work with skulls. Most of the time, I was fine. One particular day, I just didn't want to touch the ones that were remains (rather than most, which were casts). I've never quite figured out why it bothered me that day and not others.
6th-Nov-2011 11:16 am (UTC)
I've been working with human remains for almost two years now. I wish I could say I also had issues with it at first, and give you advice for getting used to it...but I can't. I've always been drawn to biology, even the morbid aspects thereof. I actually envy your sensitivity a bit. Sometimes I worry that I'm even too eager or cavalier. I don't always respect the remains I'm working with because I forget that they were once people. While I'm an archaeologist right now, I've been considering forensic anthropology in the long run. I also see some sensitivity training in my future. :P

I can tell you why it never bothered me, though. The human skeleton is just beautiful. It's such a perfect thing. Form follows function (for the most part anyway!). You can tell so much about a person's life, just with their bones. The coolest part? We're all basically the same underneath. I mean, there are ways to estimate ethnicity (and it's far from perfect), but those elegant white pieces of minerals glow no matter who you are or where you're from. In my first osteology class we worked with a variety of remains, but my first field school was in Egypt (sometimes with hair, like the one in my userpic), and now I'm in England. Between time and space, we're all human! I just love it.

I hope this is as comforting as I've intended it to be! Lol.
6th-Nov-2011 02:05 pm (UTC)
May I suggest reading some biographies of forensic pathologists and allied professionals. Their anecdotes may offer tools to compliment your own.

Many seem to have developed an odd mixture of reverence and personal connection with a macabre sense of humour.
6th-Nov-2011 06:59 pm (UTC)
Yes! William Bass has excellent narratives
6th-Nov-2011 04:27 pm (UTC)
I never felt uneasy at all personally. But I haven't worked with bones in about a year. I only handle them on excavations during the summer, and in class when I was still in school (but will be returning for my PhD, woo!). But a few members of my family own a funeral home so dead things never really put me off.

I think one of the reasons I don't have an issue with handling ones is that I don't humanize them in the beginning, because you really can't. You don't know who these bones belonged to, the gender, or really anything until you start studying them. They start as bones. I separate according to human and animal, mammal and fish, adult-child and neonate, and go from their. As an above posted said, you often start with something anonymous that eventually becomes someone. In a way you are the one responsible for making them human again bbut giving them a classification, a lifestyle, a gender and such.

However, I do talk to them now and then, although not necessarily to comfort myself. I work with mostly early medieval and iron age bones. Maybe their age removes me from being too involved in who they were. I do talk to them a little while cataloging. I might comment on their height, "Woah buddy, I bet you had trouble walking under door frames," or their diets, "Sweetie, you needed more iron in your diet, look at all the holes in your head!"

Talking to the bones might help you feel better. Or putting your role into a helpful context, not one that is obtrusive.
6th-Nov-2011 10:33 pm (UTC)
Ahh that's interesting that you get to rehumanize that. For me the bones I handle have all been sorted out into individual boxes, I just get to open them, check that everything is still there and make sure the labels identifying the contents is correct. Like if it just says "postcranial/partial skele/misc bones" on it, I have to add more details, like includes vertebrae/whatever, input everything into the database and place them onto the correct shelf.

I don't even know where the bones are from or who they are. It's just undergraduate grunt work and sorting, so I never really build a connection I guess.

Though yeah, I might talk though if I get caught I'll be known as the weird girl who talks to the bones she sorts xD
7th-Nov-2011 04:08 am (UTC)
Being known as the girl who talks to bones could be a compliment you know. :)
6th-Nov-2011 05:00 pm (UTC)
I'll agree with what sollersuk and others said- you shouldn't worry about feeling extra respectful, but should remember that you're helping to rehumanize them. Don't let it get to you.
Different people have different reactions- some are squicked out, horrified, incredibly crude, some are dismissive or cavalier, but the way you feel is a good attitude to hang on to.
7th-Nov-2011 04:01 am (UTC)
Working with human remains is a great privilege. I hope you never get over your sensitivity. I talk to the people whose bones I study all the time. And sometimes, late at night, they even talk back to me.
7th-Nov-2011 04:25 am (UTC)
My only experience with real human remains was when I got to handle a human skull a few years back, and I'd argue that that's the most "powerful" of all human remains you can hold.

I had no uneasiness, no guilt, no awkwardness. The only differences between how I handled that and how I handled a replica were that I was as careful as possible and handled it very delicately, and I also examined it closer than I would a replica. I suppose maybe I treated it with a bit of respect since it was once living and breathing just like I am, but I felt no guilt or uneasiness handling it. If anything, I gravitated toward it and ended up holding it longer than anyone else.
8th-Nov-2011 12:12 am (UTC)
If it is not affecting your ability to work with them, then I wouldn't worry about it. I've never felt an uneasiness when I deal with human remains but I tend to handle those sorts of things and situations better than most people I've met. It is probably a good thing you can sympathize and appreciate the remains. I wouldn't try to 'get over' it. You will get used to it if you continue to work in the field.
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