The Return of Remains: How Can Dignity Be Better Safeguarded?

University essay from Uppsala universitet/Teologiska institutionen

Author: Sian Cook; [2015]

Keywords: return of the dead; remains; conflict; disaster;


This thesis argues that the return of remains deserves greater attention in humanitarian action. When remains are returned in an undignified manner, or not at all, this can harm the deceased person’s family and provoke the surrounding community. The inability to return remains has a significant impact on the deceased’s family. A conceptual framework – using concepts of posthumous dignity, boundary objects and moral injury – is outlined in this thesis. An extensive literature review was conducted to landmark events and publications regarding human remains and the impact of returning remains to families. After examining a variety of sectors and professions for return-of-remains practices, it has been observed that the way in which remains are returned to families, including what they are interred within and surrounded by, is critical to preventing moral injury and other distress to the families. The thesis also contends that efforts to return remains to families are widely and well received by affected communities; however these efforts require a well-coordinated approach of standardised procedures. Examples of prevailing practices from several professions are used to propose a humanitarian approach for the return of remains to families, with a goal of safeguarding the dignity of the dead and helping families cope with their loss. An analysis of such case material makes possible the formulation of recommendations on how to improve practices in the humanitarian sector. Protecting the dead is a responsibility of the living, and guidance is needed on how to return remains in an appropriate and sensitive manner.

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