Among the Anonymous Dead

Image by Parth Joshi.

Image by Parth Joshi.

Among the Anonymous Dead: Exhumations and the Emotive Materiality of Deceased Victims of Mass Violence | by Erin Jessee and Sarah Wagner

This panel emerged from the realization that the anonymous victims of mass violence have been a subject of increased discussion among anthropologists and related practitioners due to human remains’ ability to influence both positively and negatively efforts aimed at facilitating social repair in transitional communities. From Katherine Verdery’s seminal study of postsocialist dead body politics and the qualities that make dead bodies ideal political symbols to Cara Krmpotich, Joost Fontein and John Harries’ 2010 article on the ability of human remains to support and animate processes of mourning, historicization, and marginalization, anthropologists are increasingly examining the “emotive materiality” of human remains in settings of violent conflict and its aftermath. As such, panelists explored this phenomenon through case studies drawn from the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries.

Tricia Redeker-Hepner chaired the panel. John Harries presented a paper on the extermination of the Beothuk First Nation in Newfoundland, Canada in the early nineteenth century, examining how the skeleton of an unnamed Beothuk boy has assumed different meanings over time. Jackie Leach Scully’s paper examined ongoing exhumations of Australian soldiers who died at Fromelles, France during World War I, and how modern-day DNA identifications facilitated the transformation of these soldiers from anonymous human remains to social beings in the minds of their descendants. Dawnie Steadman discussed the civil and political controversies that surrounded, and ultimately ended, recent exhumations aimed at identifying victims of the Spanish Civil War and providing a historically valid record of the human rights abuses endured by civilians. Erin Jessee presented on the various exhumations used to promote transitional justice in post-genocide Rwanda and the lessons they provide for post-civil war northern Uganda in formulating its own transitional justice strategy. Sarah Wagner, serving as discussant, concluded the panel.

Taken together, panelists grappled with making sense of the absent, anonymous human remains through which individuals and institutions made claims—both personal and political—about the past and present. Similarly, they attempted to tease out the broader social, political, historical, and cultural phenomena that compelled shifting attitudes toward the anonymous dead over time. To this end, the following reflection draws from Wagner’s discussion and highlights two common threads among the papers. First, Wagner focuses on the ways that the papers explore emotive materiality. She then analyzes temporalities—how the authors’ grappled with varying passages of time between the mass violence and the subsequent exhumations.

Emotive Materiality

In thinking through dead bodies as objects of signification, each paper touched on—either explicitly or implicitly—the emotive materiality of human remains, a concept that panelist Harries and his co-authors developed in their Journal of Material Culture article. For this panel, Harries returned to the animating quality of Beothuk Indian remains, underscoring the processual side of meaning making—that is, he explained,

the unfolding relational processes, at once ideational and material, by which bones enter into meaning.

Harries noted how Beothuk remains became objects of a pedagogic, disciplining display for late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century publics. More striking, however, was the way in which the bones’ emotive materiality and affective presence gained force after being removed from the public’s voyeuristic gaze—when museums packed up their skeletons, no longer deemed appropriate for modern audiences, recalling them from sight.

Rather than through their affective presence, the role these anonymous dead play in shaping postcolonial subjectivities and sensibilities emerges from absence, or what Harries provocatively termed their “emotive immateriality.” In place of circulating bones, “problematic images of problematic displays,” such as a Beothuk boy from Pilley’s Tickle formerly exhibited in a Newfoundland museum, enter into the popular imaginary, printed and reprinted, with each reproduction distancing the object from its once human form. Yet problematic images still spur visceral reactions and thus excite (or disturb) reflections on relationships of power and identity, which Harries noted with his own unsettled response to the boy’s form, “naked, fragile and exposed.”

In her paper on recent efforts to identify Australian and/or British soldiers killed in the World War I battle of Fromelles, Scully likewise considered the emotive materiality of human remains revealed in the process of uniting genomic and social identity. Sharing Harries’ attentiveness to processes of signification, Scully delved into the scientific and social act of reattaching names to anonymous soldiers. Two bodies are at long last reunited: the material body of the unknown soldier that lay unrecognized in a mass grave from 1916 to 2009 and the body of the person, the social being, maintained over decades in the memory and imagination of his surviving kin.

Interestingly, Scully added into the mix of materiality the chemical process by which these associations are made possible: namely, the DNA extracted and analyzed (from the exhumed remains and from samples provided by distant relatives) as a “substance, a chemical that materializes identity.”

More than marked by the authority of science, Scully argued,

this genetic substance tying the two bodies evokes an enduring, material continuity between dead individuals in the past and living individuals in the present.

In this light, perhaps more so than other forms of evidence linking bodies to individual identities, DNA stands out as an emotionally and symbolically powerful means of signification, especially to a twenty-first-century public whose genealogical imaginaries have been so deeply stirred by the possibilities of genetic truth-telling.

Although less overtly flagged, the notion of emotive materiality was also an important analytic thread running throughout the papers by Jessee and Steadman. In stressing how remains mobilize actors, state and non-state, individual and collective, through the examples of Rwanda and Uganda, and the Spanish Civil War, both authors underscored the contextual, relational valence of bodies, particularly the bodies of victims of state-sponsored violence, influencing post-conflict political discourse.


Just as the panelists drew on examples from different geopolitical contexts, they grappled with different moments in relation to time and its effects. What does the passage of time mean in this discussion of anonymous dead and efforts to reclaim identity? Both Harries and Scully spoke to temporal gaps—that is, to longue durée absence and to dead from decades past—who nevertheless are capable of stirring reactions and compelling action among a contemporary public. Steadman found exhuming bodies from the Spanish Civil War fuels present-day political debate. She explained,

Human remains have literally embodied the efforts to recover historic memory.

But that recovery process has unfolded in fits and starts over the past fourteen years, with a recent moratorium placed on exhumations by the new conservative government. Dead bodies thus tack between the temporal states of public remembering and forgetting.

For Jessee’s comparative analysis of exhumation and commemoration in Rwanda and Uganda, anonymous dead crowd present reckonings of past violence while simultaneously being cast as vehicles for shaping future states and polities. The remains of the Rwandan genocide victims, whose burial since 2008 has been restricted to state-run memorials, serve explicitly pedagogic aims for present and future generations. Jessee quoted a memorial guide as explaining,

Many people, especially foreigners, were denying or doubting genocide ever took place here. It became important that we show the international community what had happened in Rwanda. Also, the memorial is meant for Rwandans who were not here during the tragic events, as well as future generations.

Many survivors, however, resist the state’s reach into this realm of ministering the bodies and souls of their dead. Some remain sceptical about the exhumation-commemoration process, finding little comfort in official modes and spaces of care. In the case of Uganda, less tightly controlled efforts to account for anonymous dead—through ad hoc identifications and exhumations—have not necessarily eased survivors’ concerns. Instead, hasty reburials have left surviving relatives with the sense that the spirits of their dead—victims of the twenty-year civil war—have not been appeased and thus “continue to inflict suffering on the surrounding communities in various ways.”

Ultimately, the panel led to an engaged discussion. An audience member posed the question of whether community-based efforts to imbue the dead with their own personal meanings were any less inherently political than governments’ efforts to mobilize the anonymous dead in efforts to support transitional justice and nation-building agendas. To this end, panelists agreed that community-based exhumations and related commemorative efforts were often highly politicized and intended to resist, or at least complicate, state-led transitional justice initiatives in favor of locally-conceived narratives and outcomes. The subsequent discussion returned again to the theme of emotive materiality and how the symbolic capital attributed to human remains can be contested throughout a society. It is not solely state-driven, nor is it inherently consistent across time and space. Indeed, this is one of the factors that makes the study of dead body politics so intriguing and important.


Krmpotich, Cara, Joost Fontein, and John Harries. 2010. “The Substance of Bones: The Emotive Materiality and Affective Presence of Human Remains.” Journal of Material Culture 15 (4): 371-384.

Verdery, Katherine. 1999. The Political Lives of Dead Bodies: Reburial and Postsocialist Change. New York: Columbia University Press.

Recommended Citation

Erin Jessee, Erin, and Sarah Wagner. Among the Anonymous Dead: Exhumations and the Emotive Materiality of Deceased Victims of Mass Violence. Emergent Conversation. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review Online, 16 March 2015.

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