Puffy eyed Richardian Philippa Langley certainly made for interesting viewing on Channel 4’s Richard III: The King in the Car Park. The poor lass tried to tame her tears throughout. Compared to springy haired presenter Simon Farnaby, and bemused bone expert Jo Appleby, she appeared to have had, well, several flights over the cuckoo’s nest! Why they decided to explain to her in graphic detail how Richard died is beyond me! However, when you take a step back to look at the treatment of our deceased and their skeletons, it becomes clear that Philippa’s tears have a solemn and unsettling point to make.
“It’s all quite clinical isn’t it,” remarked Simon, as they stood under the cold, blue lighting of Leicester University’s archaeology department examining Richard’s bones. With the dead monarch laid out on the table it suddenly became all too much for Philippa and she had to leave the room, crying.
“I don’t see bones on that table. I see…a human being,” she sobbed, as Simon comforted her in the hall.
It was these observations from the pair that really struck me. It took me back to a troubling visit to the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy to see the mummified body of ‘Ötzi the Iceman’ .
Ötzi, as he is called, lived about 3,300 BCE in the Ötztal Alps . It is believed he died after being wounded with a flint arrowhead. He was covered by snow, and then later ice, preserving him for thousands of years.
He was discovered in 1991 to be one of the world’s oldest mummies. Because humidity retained in his cells, his body tissue was still elastic enough that in-depth scientific investigations could take place.
Yet however special Ötzi is considered to be, I could not help but feel saddened when visiting him. He is almost heralded as a God in the museum, with his very own exhibition, but on peering through the small window into the dark, refrigerated cell, I felt nothing but pity for him.
The free man who once roamed the beautiful Ötztal Alps is now confined to another cold, ‘clinical’ space. Although the museum states that it wanted to provide an “intimate atmosphere for the mummy for ethical reasons,” there is still the uncomfortable thought of dozens of visitors filing past a dead body to have a gawp. Yes, they might need to run investigations; yes, his presence in the museum is undoubtedly educational, but they didn’t invent the phrase ‘rest in peace’ for nothing. I can’t help but get the feeling that Ötzi should be back outside, resting where he belongs.
Is it right that most humans are allowed a dignified death, buried in their hometown or scattered in their favourite place, while a select few are denied this, forever to be a prisoner behind glass, subjected to ogling eyes? Each ‘display piece’ was once a living, emotional, human being. Is it really just and proper?
Alarmingly, our long gone loved ones could one day have their future resting places disturbed, well at least if they’re buried in the London Boroughs. The London Local Authorities Act 2007 states that someone buried at least 75 years ago can be repositioned further down in the ground so that another body can be buried above. No doubt the Act will be passed elsewhere to stop cemeteries closing because they are full.
Although permission has to be received from existing relatives in order to move a body, it provides a worrying picture of what could happen in the future.
There is something wrong with the thought of meddling with people who were buried in peace years ago. It seems to signify that they have no importance. The bodies are pushed further below to enable someone new to be buried further up, but what about their headstone? Will there be two on the spot? People died. Whether it was via a Norman sword, a 1940s gun or natural causes, people died, and they have stories which we should we not forget.
Returning to Richard III and we are in the middle of a muddle. Where will he be buried? York Minister argues for Leicester because: “the identity of his remains follows a significant period in which Leicester and Leicestershire gained a sense of Richard belonging there, at least in death,” (BBC, 2013) while descendants are crying ‘York Minister’ as it was Richard’s “physical and spiritual home” – “his own wish.” (BBC 2013). Richard deserves to head up the M1 towards York – it’s about time we gave respect in death as well as life. It doesn’t matter what the people of Leicester think; Richard may be a skeleton but he was once a person with thoughts, feelings and wishes, and as Philippa sees and we have learnt, this is all too often sadly forgotten.