The Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery in Northern France. Photo via Wikipedia
The Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery in Northern France. Photo via Wikipedia

Personhood Week: When Dead Bodies Become Dead People

It’s Personhood Week here on Only Human. Today’s installment is about what it means to give a name to a dead body. Monday’s post was about conception, and yesterday’s about the age of majority. Tomorrow goes to non-human animals, and Friday to neuroscientists who argue that “personhood” is a convenient, if illusory construction of the human brain.

I’d love to hear about how you guys define personhood, and why. Feel free to leave comments on these posts, or jump in to the #whatisaperson conversation on Twitter.


On the night of July 19, 1916, halfway through the First World War, troops from Australia and Great Britain attacked German positions in Fromelles, in northern France. The Germans were prepared. The battled ended the next day, after thousands of Brits and Aussies had died. It was, according to a magazine produced by the Australian government, “the worst 24 hours in Australia’s entire history.”

In 2002, an Australian amateur historian named Lambis Englezos visited Fromelles and noticed that the number of graves was far fewer than the number of soldiers reported missing from the battle. He suspected that the Germans had buried many in mass graves, and over the next few years he convinced reporters at 60 Minutes Australia of his theory. Its eventual broadcast, as well as reports from Red Cross records and aerial photos, led to an official investigation. In 2008 and 2009, archaeologists dug up five mass graves, containing 250 bodies.

Then came the question of identifying them. After more than 90 years, standard identification methods — fingerprints, medical and dental records — weren’t available. But there was DNA, deep inside the bone marrow. So the researchers extracted samples from the remains and then re-buried each body in its own grave.

This launched the Fromelles Identification Project (FIP), a joint effort by the Australian and British governments to find living descendants of the dead soldiers and convince them to donate their own DNA for matching. (The Y chromosome, passed through male descendants, changes very little from one generation to the next; same goes for mitochondrial DNA that is passed down through the female line.) So far 1,000 Australians have donated DNA to the effort, and 144 soldiers have been identified by name. The scientific, ethical and privacy concerns surrounding this project are fascinating. But before digging in to those, I think it’s important to address why people (via their governments) are willing to put so much effort and resources into identifying dead bodies in the first place.

The first answer is practical. Surviving family members often need to confirm a dead person’s identity before having access to their estate, pension, life insurance policy, and so on. Identification is also thought to ease families’ emotional toll. As bioethicist Jackie Leach Scully writes in a study published earlier this year, “the certainty of death is generally thought to be better than the ongoing emotional anguish of fearing but not knowing.”

It’s hard to see how these benefits would be valid for family members 90 years later, though. Nobody’s still settling their great-great grandfather’s estate, after all, and they’re not likely to be mourning his death, either.

But the justification goes beyond practical concerns. In To Know Where He Lies, a book about unidentified bodies from the Bosnian War in the 1990s, anthropologist Sarah Wagner explains how DNA identifications can have larger, more abstract consequences for the community (emphasis mine):

DNA became the critical, entrusted, indeed indispensable proof of individual identity for the thousands of sets of nameless mortal remains… Matching genetic profiles promised to reattach personhood (signposted by a name) to physical remains and, thereby, to reconstitute the identified person as a social — and political — subject.

The FIP smartly decided to conduct a social, ethical, and historical study along with its DNA efforts. Scully’s new paper, published in New Genetics in Society, gives pilot data showing how FIP participations described their motivations for getting involved. It’s a small study — based on email responses of several dozen participants and in-person interviews with five of them — but fascinating all the same. Some of these responses have challenged my own conceptions about the value of historical research, not to mention what it means to be a person.

In her initial emails to FIP participants, Scully simply asked whether they would be interested in being interviewed in the future. She received 116 responses. Of these, about one-third provided additional information about why they wanted to get involved. “These were more than just curiosity about a long-lost relative or interest in being part of a high profile and prestigious national project,” Scully writes. “Many email respondents indicated a powerful emotional investment.”

For instance, one woman said that after she learned she was a direct female descendant of one of the soldier’s sisters, “I literally jumped around the living room for several minutes.” Another participant said, during an in-person interview, “It was like winning the lottery as far as I was concerned. Skin was tingling, hairs standing up.”

Of all of the responses she received, Scully notes, about half said that part of their motivation involved “looking after” or “caring” for the dead or for the family the dead left behind. They said this even when they didn’t believe in any kind of afterlife. Here’s one interview exchange:

Participant: I’m doing it for George.

Interviewer: How does that work?

Participant: I dunno! I’m a bit of an agnostic, I don’t believe in life after death, you know.

That’s a bit hard for my mind to understand. Scully says it might be about respecting the memory of the deceased, which is still alive in the minds of other people. Identifying the body by name, she says, might help ensure “that the biography through which he is remembered has the ending that casts the best backward light on the life that has gone.”

Other participants are involved not to care for the dead, per se, but to honor relatives they had real relationships with. “Two interviewees said that it was ‘for my mother,’ who in both cases was a younger sister of the dead man,” Scully notes. Another participant reached out to their father after a 20-year absence after learning of the project, because it was he who first recounted the story of the dead soldier. This person told Scully that the FIP “helped to bridge a gap between my father and I while, at the same time, allowing us to bridge a gap with our family’s past.”

Soliciting DNA samples for body identifications also raises significant ethical and privacy concerns, similar to those that come up during any kind of genetic genealogy project. Genetic comparisons among family members might reveal long-buried family secrets, such as inaccurate paternity, that can cause unexpected emotional turbulence. Many people may be willing to take that risk, but they should at least know about it before getting involved. Unfortunately, none of the five participants Scully interviewed remembered these issues being mentioned before they signed on.

Then there are the related issues of privacy and consent: What if one family member wants to participate but another, sharing some of the same DNA, does not? A few of the email respondents told Scully that some of their relatives were “skeptical or hostile” about their involvement.

What if relatives have differing opinions about how long the identifications must go on? After the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, for example, body parts were strewn everywhere. Some families wanted to know every time a sample was identified as their relative, whereas others found these constant updates upsetting. “The ability to ‘give a name to’ the tiniest scraps of tissue is a new problem that is unique to DNA-based identification,” Scully notes.

And finally, there’s the more abstract concern that, to my mind, may in the long run pose more problems than the rest: that DNA identification will lead to what Scully calls the “geneticization of family.” The partner of a missing man is not (usually) genetically related to him. The same goes for his adopted children, or children his partner conceived using a sperm donation. Does that mean these relationships are any less familial, or any less important?

In this (albeit subtle) way, DNA identification may be contributing to our society’s growing obsession with biological identity, with biological personhood. This technology, Scully writes, is “likely to reinforce further the status of the genome as the most important, or even only, constituent of both individual and family identity.”