Tag Archives: forensic anthropology

Dead Men Do Tell Tales

The last two weeks in class have been spent on grief and mourning, with last class getting started on looking at rituals of burial. On Friday, we looked at the PBS documentary, The Undertaking, which showed a very emotional and personal look at the way survivors are experiencing death and the rituals that the little Michigan town inhabitants take after the death of someone.

There is a book by the late Florida forensic anthropologist William R. Maples, Ph.d. called Dead Men Do Tell Tales. This look at death, it seems to me, is distinctly different from the way that the PBS documentary sees it. To Dr. Maples it is another day on the job and a puzzle to solve. In first chapter, called “Everyday is Halloween”, he says, “I have gazed on the face of death innumerable times, witnessed it in all its grim manifestations. Death has no power to freeze my heart, jangle my nerves or sway my reason. Death to me is no terror of the night but a daylit companion, a familiar condition, a process obedient to scientific laws and answerable to scientific inquiry” (Maples 2). His attitude towards death is very different from the average American, to him it a fact of life as he is around it daily. It is scientific, it can be quantified. Whereas the Lynch family in The Undertaking, who also deal with death on a daily basis, experience the emotional and ritualistic side of death. They understand that their death is about the survivors whereas here, Maples seems incredibly connected to the scientific dead body, mostly the bones. And there comes out of this attitude a sort of ruthlessness for the truth: “All too often in the past, under the old coroner system, the innocent have died unavenged, and malefactors have escaped unpunished, because investigators lacked the stomach, the knowledge, the experience and the perseverance to reach with both hands into the rotting remnants of some dreadful crime, rummage through the bones and grasp the pure gleaming nugget of truth that lies at the center of it all. Truth is discoverable. Truth wants to be discovered” (2).

But though he fancies himself very much connected the dead body, after all he is around it all day and, as he says, reaches in with both hands into those rotting remnants, how much is his work really for the living? Do the dead care if their case is solved? Do the dead care if the murderer is caught or is it the living? His search for the truth pertains as much to the living if not more as he believes it pertains to the dead. Think of the show Bones on Fox, it is about a forensic anthropologist, the same as Dr. Maples. Dr. Temperance Brennan constantly hallows the truth as her main objective and the things she fights tooth and nail to discover. How much do these scientists understand that their job is also so connected to the living as much as it is to the dead?

Maples, William P.h.d. Dead Men Do Tell Tales. New York: Broadway, 1994.

The Undertaking:  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/undertaking/view/