Only know they are our cousins


When I was a child my mother would recite poetry to entertain me or to pass the time. One of her favourite poems was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow\’s The Song of Hiawatha[1]
Whenever my mother got to these verses:

\”On the grave-posts of our fathers[2]
Are no signs, no figures painted;
Who are in those graves we know not,
Only know they are our fathers.
Of what kith they are and kindred,
From what old, ancestral Totem,
Be it Eagle, Bear, or Beaver,
They descended, this we know not,
Only know they are our fathers.

a chill would run up my spine. Imagine, I would think, not knowing which grave was that of your grandmother? Imagine knowing only that you grandfather was somewhere in that field.

As I grew older and read about archeology I loved to read about tomb excavations and the recovery of mummies. It was years before I connected archeology to that passage of Longfellow\’s poem. I can\’t remember whose lament it was that moved me to understand that one culture\’s science was another culture\’s grave robbing. Now instead of imagining that I didn\’t know which headstone marked the grave of my grandfather or grandmother I imagined if I didn\’t even know where their bodies were. Worse, I imagined that I knew that their bodies had been dug up and examined by strangers without my permission. I imagined that pictures of their corpses were published in journals for all to read. I imagine that tourists in some far off country were paying to walk by the bodies of my grandparents.

Which is, of course, what happened. People from western, industrialized countries, swept down on the peoples of the countries they had colonized or invaded and stole from them the bodies of their ancestors just as they stole from them their other treasures.

In time (although it took far longer than it should have) the practice of scientifically sanctioned grave robbing came to a halt. Now the institutions that held the stolen remains were left with a conundrum. What should they do with the bones and corpses they had plundered from around the world? The task was relatively easy if there was a solid record about where the remains had been taken from. But there were many remains for which there were no paper trail. What should be done with those?

Today I found out that the Government of Saskatchewan had been, for some years, been providing a way for the remains of First Nations individuals to be, in a sense, repatriated:

The government set aside the four-hectare parcel of Crown land in 1998 to re-inter remains that had no where else to go — bones lying on museum and university shelves, unearthed during construction or discovered due to land erosion.

They find their final resting place at the sacred site if there\’s no way to determine if the dead belonged to a certain tribe or there\’s no way to return them to the places where they were found. . . . \”elders representing eight different linguistic groups hold burial ceremonies and pray for the bodies to rest in peace.\” [Saskatchewan Government Running Sacred First Nations Burial Ground]

Why am I, an atheist, so moved by this story? Not because I think that the souls of the dead demand decent burial–after all I don\’t think that such a thing as \’a soul\’ exists. I am moved because I agree with Immanuel Kant that we should:


Act so that you treat humanity, both in your own person and in that of another, always as an end and never merely as a means.
[The Categorical Imperative]

By the very act of treating these remains as we believe those people (and their descendents) would wish them to be treated we ceasing to treat them as means.
I buried my mother according to her wishes because she was not a means for me to demonstrate my atheism to the world but rather someone who had her own desired ends.

Of course, it is easier to treat ones family as ends in themselves and the rest of the world as means. Yet every person who ever lived is a relative of mine. Every person alive today is a relative of mine. I might have to go far back in my family tree but if we but had the records to do so we could construct a family tree that connected each one of us to everyone else. To paraphrase Longfellow:

\”On the grave-posts of our forebears[2]
Are no signs, no figures painted;
Who are in those graves we know not,
Only know they are our forebears.
Of what kith they are and kindred,
From what old, ancestral Totem,
Be it Eagle, Bear, or Beaver,
They descended, this we know not,
Only know they are our cousins.

[1] Each of my parents had different favourite portions of the poem and thus when I read it to myself the voice in my head is sometimes my mother\’s and sometimes my father\’s.&#8617

[2] I tell myself to understand \”our fathers\” as \”our forebears\” just as I tell myself that mankind means humanity and manpower means staff.&#8617

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