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Ethnic Burial Customs

Malagasian traditional 'dancing with the dead'Last week on the blog we talked about the Parisian catacombs and the mind-boggling six million sets of remains found under the city of Paris. For many people, the sanctity of the original gravesite is paramount and this kind of redistribution of human remains is nothing short of sacrilege. For others, it’s a sensible solution to a real and pressing problem, and every effort was made (and continues to be made) to honour and respect the dead.

Late last week, Ann sent me a link to a Washington Post article entitled “Reburying the Dead in Guatemala”, concerning the Guatemalan custom of reusing crypts that are no longer supported financially by the family or the community. Crypts are not bought, but leased, and if payments on the lease lapse, paid grave cleaners break open the crypt and remove the remains. If the remains are claimed by the family, they are boxed and put into a central ossuary. If the remains are not claimed, they are bagged in clear plastic with magic marker identifications and added to a mass grave.

Frankly, the article left me gaping. Mummified remains are carelessly manhandled and tossed on the ground. They’re carried under arms like packages and left propped against walls. Bags of remains and uncovered mummies are transferred to mass graves with forklifts. For me, it was the attitude of disrespect for the dead that appalled. But how much of that is simply my societal views of how the dead should be treated? Clearly this is an accepted practice for the people of Guatemala.

It made me think about burial culture and how we as North Americans don’t hold the only proper ideas of how the dead should be laid to rest. Different cultures and different time periods have/had different customs:

  • In the Victorian era, before photography became a common tool of the masses, the deceased was dressed in their finest and photographed, often with live family members. This would often be the only image of the deceased the family would ever have.
  • Hindus believe cremation is the most spiritually pure way for a human soul to depart. The deceased is burned in a public ceremony and the pyre is lit by the eldest male in the family. The traditional custom of Sati involves the burning of an Indian wife on her husband’s funeral pyre, sometimes voluntarily, often not. Various laws have been passed in different countries, with India finally criminalizing the practice in 1987.
  • Cremation is strictly forbidden for Muslims, as is embalming. As a result, burials must take place within only a few days of death. Autopsies are also forbidden unless required by law.
  • The Baha’i believe that death is only the beginning of a great spiritual journey. Baha’i dead must be buried within an hour’s travel of the place of death, and may not be embalmed or cremated.
  • Several cultures—the Egyptians, the Chinese, and the Vikings—have buried their dead with everything they might need in the afterlife, including sometimes their live servants or wives. For the rich and powerful, this often meant burial sites of great size.
  • The people of Tibet traditionally practiced Jhator, or sky burials, where the dead are cut into pieces and left on the top of the mountain for carrion birds to feast on. The practice was both practical and spiritual. Due to the local rocky terrain, the digging of graves for burial was practically impossible, and the lack of trees to provide fuel for fires meant that cremation was not an option. From the spiritual side, the Tibetans believe the vultures are ‘sky dancers’ that will carry the soul of the departed to heaven. The body is simply considered an empty shell after death, so there is no need to preserve it.
  • On the island of Madagascar, the tradition of Famadihana, or dancing with the dead, has been practiced since the seventeenth century. Also referred to as the ‘turning of the bones’, it is a celebration, a time for family and friends to gather to reconnect with each other and those who have gone before. The bodies of the dead are exhumed from their tombs and rewrapped in fresh, costly grave cloths. A band plays while the shrouded bodies are lifted up onto shoulders and danced around the tomb before being laid back to rest. Within the community, it’s seen as a way of honouring their family members, and as an act of love.

These are just a few of the cultural traditions around death. Do you know of any others not covered here?

Photo credit: Hery Zo Rakotondramanana


Forensic Case Files: The Parisian Catacombs

Paris is often called The City of Light. But deep under the city, another world exists, a world of darkness and death—the great Catacombs of Paris. Holding the remains of more than six million dead, over two hundred miles of underground tunnels stretch under the city in a labyrinthine sepulchre.

For over a millennium, Parisians buried their dead in cemeteries inside the city walls. But even by the twelfth century, the cemeteries were already overflowing with no room to expand. Parisians attempted to manage the issue by exhuming the oldest of the remains and burying them packed together in mass graves. This helped for a period of time, but, by the eighteenth century, things were getting desperate once again. Finally, after the weight of the mass grave caved the contents into an adjoining residential basement, a radical plan was concocted and acted upon.

Paris was built on top of a series of limestone mines, many which were excavated to supply the city with stone for its rapid expansion. Coincidentally, as the cemeteries were being closed, those same mine tunnels were being renovated to ensure the stability of the streets and buildings above. It was the perfect, if somewhat creepy, solution to dual problems: the mine shafts could hold the remains, while the bones of the dead could help support the great city where they’d once travelled above ground. A number of cemetery headstones and sculptures were also moved underground and slowly, the mausoleum was formed. It took over two years to move the dead of Paris underground, and an additional four years to arrange the bones into their current arrangements. The ossuary opened to the public in 1814.

A map showing the extensive catacomb plans:

Entry to the catacombs (translation: Stop! Here lies the Empire of Death):

Bone sculptures:

Cemetery sculptures and artefacts:

The first time I saw the cover for DEAD, WITHOUT A STONE TO TELL IT, I knew they’d used the Paris catacombs for some of their material. Needless to say, it’s hard to get photos of skeletal remains at actual crime scenes as they are evidence and must be protected. So the cover designers had to go to accessible photos to include real bones. Even knowing where the material came from, I still thought it worked beautifully.


The catacombs hold a more varied history than simply the home of the dead. During World War II it was home to the French resistance, who used the system of tunnels to traverse the city in secret. At the same time, a section below a high school in the sixth arrondisement was used as a German bunker. But the catacombs’ impact on the city is lasting—due to the presence of the tunnels under the city, tall structures cannot be supported in Paris. As such, tall, modern skyscrapers will never grace the cityscape and Paris will forever retain its historical appearance.

Photo credit: Cesar I. Martins, Wikimedia Commons, Shadowgate, Adam Baker, Julian Fong, Americano, Will White, Sharat Ganapati, Fraser Mummery, Tommie Hansen, and Randy Connolly.


Forensic Case Files: Famine and Death at an Irish Workhouse

The Irish Potato Famine took place between 1845 and 1852 when a severe potato blight ravaged Northern Europe. It is believed that potatoes carrying the microorganism Phytophthora infestans carried the blight from North America’s eastern coast to Europe in 1844, where it then spread. In 1845, half of Ireland’s single strain potato crop was lost to the blight; three quarters was lost in 1846 and the first starvation deaths were recorded. A staple food for both the farmer and the poor, some families depended almost solely on the potato to stave off starvation. Paired with the vitamins and protein in milk, the twelve to fourteen pounds of potatoes consumed per person per day provided a relatively balanced, albeit uninteresting, diet. But with their crops dying by the acre, many families had no chance of survival. And even though the majority of Ireland’s lands produced enough grain to feed its starving people, this was considered a cash crop and Ireland continued to export thirty to fifty shiploads of food to Britain daily while their own people died by the thousands. By the time the famine finally ended, over one million Irish had succumbed to starvation and related diseases, while another million had emigrated, many coming to North America.

In 2005, a worker for a local archeology consulting firm, Kilkenny Archaeology, discovered human remains on the site of the old Kilkenny Union Workhouse. Excavations started the following year, and 63 mass graves were uncovered, each holding the remains of 6 to 27 deceased for a total of over 970 dead. Out of that 970, 545 were children under the age of 6.

The Kilkenny Union Workhouse opened in 1842, following the creation of the Poor Law Act. It became home to over 1,300 poor souls, providing food and shelter in exchange for backbreaking and brutal labour producing clothes and blankets by hand. But as the famine continued, the number of people seeking refuge at the workhouse skyrocketed, and by 1851 it housed over 4,300 inhabitants—more than three times its intended maximum population.

With so many residents housed inside its walls, the workhouse buildings were extremely overcrowded and became a prime incubator for diseases such as cholera, typhoid and consumption. The final stressor came when a typhus outbreak struck in 1847. Because of a recent ban from burying paupers in local cemeteries, the workhouse constructed an unconsecrated cemetery on their own property. Due to the number of inhabitants dying each day, there was no choice but to use a system of mass graves to manage the dead, creating and closing one grave per week.

Over half of the recovered remains show signs of scurvy, a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C; for the Irish, this need would have usually been filled by the potatoes in their diet. Without that component, the bones showed a range of characteristic clues:

  • severely low mineral content
  • thinning of the cortex (the hard outer layer of bone that provides the majority of structural support)
  • epiphyseal separation in young victims (a reversal of the normal process of epiphyseal fusion)
  • holes in the skull at the temples and around the teeth.

The bones tell a heartbreaking story of starvation and suffering. But they also speak of redemption, as many of these osteological signs only come about during the recovery from scurvy. Clearly many of the dead had survived near starvation to begin their recovery at the workhouse, only to die from typhus in their still weakened state in the overcrowded ranks of the workhouse.

One thing to note about the mass graves—the dead were buried with care. Compared to mass graves in war zones like Srebrenica, where bodies were carelessly tossed on top of each other, the Irish remains were carefully shrouded and laid in simple pine coffins. The coffins were then neatly stacked in the mass graves before being finally filled in. Sometimes family were buried together, a parent and child or siblings interred together in a single coffin.

In May 2010, a reburial ceremony was held, consecrating the ground as part of the new Famine Memorial Garden.

Photo credit: Bioarchaeologist Dr Jonny Geber, University College Cork


Word on the Street Toronto

This past Sunday I took part in Word on the Street Toronto, Canada's largest book and magazine festival. Celebrating its 25th year, Word on the Street has everything for the book lover—one-on-one interviews, panel discussions, publishers, booksellers, libraries, literacy groups and much, much more.

This was my first Word on the Street, but what a fabulous festival! Every genre and taste was represented for every age. Despite the doom-and-gloom weather forecast for severe thunderstorms, the sky cleared during the festival and Toronto residents responded, coming out in droves.

I was part of the crew coming out from the Crime Writers of Canada and helped man booth 147. Along the way I met some of our existing readers, some new readers, and had great discussions with readers and authors alike. It was a really wonderful experience being immersed in a crowd of people who were all there for one reason—a universal love of reading.

Here are a few pictures from the afternoon...

Queen's Park Circle shut down for the festival:

Rick Blechta and Terry Carroll selling books and signing at the Crime Writers of Canada booth:

Jonathan Bennett, Jeramy Dodds, and Michael Lista in the ‘New Narratives’ tent:

Gail Gallant, Lucy Leiderman, and Lesley Livingston specializing in spoken word poetry in the ‘This Is Not the Shakespeare Theater Stage’ tent:

The Toronto Public Library booth was hopping with both kids and adults:

Penguin Random House's Author Solutions was out with several of its authors doing signings:

The Kobo Writing Life booth:

Toronto Book Award finalist Anthony De Sa, talking about his novel Kicking the Sky:

The ‘Amazon.ca Bestsellers Stage’ tent, introducing Andrew Pypers' The Demonologist:

Ottawa firefighter John Kenny with his debut novel The Spark:

And what's a festival without a beer tent?

Joan O'Callaghan and I manning the Crime Writers of Canada booth, meeting new readers, talking up the CWC and signing books:

Thanks Word on the Street for a great time. Looking forward to seeing you again next year!


Forensic Case Files: Jack the Ripper Finally Identified?

Apparently this is debunking science month here at Skeleton Keys. Last week, we looked at the bad science that led archeologists studying the Viking invasions of England to incorrectly identify the sex of buried remains. This week, I want to talk about the recent announcement that Jack the Ripper has been identified more than 125 years after the final murder took place. Several people asked my opinion on this case, and while I’m not an expert on Ripper mythology, I’m happy to tackle the scientific aspect of this announcement.

On September 6th, a story broke on the Daily Mail naming a Polish hairdresser, Aaron Kosminski, as Jack the Ripper (read the original story here). Russell Edwards, a self-appointed ‘armchair detective’ purchased a shawl supposedly found with the body of Catherine Eddowes, the fourth Ripper victim discovered on September 30, 1888. He approached Dr. Jari Louhelainen, a senior lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, in hopes of recovering forensic evidence from the scarf to connect the killings to Kosminski. Kosminski had been one of the six main suspects at the time of the murders and Edwards ‘became convinced Kosminski was our man’. (Jen’s note—please keep in mind my opening explanation from last week’s article on the Viking shieldmaidens about how objective science proceeds. Convincing yourself of the end result before you begin is not a good start).

Upon examining the scarf. Louhelainen found traces of blood splatter and semen. Louhelainen extracted DNA from both using a supposedly novel technique called ‘vacuuming’, and, once again, mitochondrial DNA was used to determine the genetic line of the sample. A female descendant of Eddowes provided a DNA sample for comparison and was a perfect match to the blood spatter. A similar descendant of Kosminski (a mysterious, unnamed female whom Edwards claims to be protecting by leaving in anonymity) provided a sample which also resulted in a perfect match to the semen sample.

On this data alone, Edwards declares that Kosminski must be Jack the Ripper.

So where does this claim go off the rails for me?

  • The DNA was identified by a novel technique, one that has never been vetted or peer-reviewed in any way (although Louhelainen’s layman’s description of the technique is so basic that there must be more to it than simply soaking the fabric in buffer and sucking it back out again; that hardly seems like a novel technique as it’s fairly close to how we extract cheek swab DNA from filter paper). So where is the proof to the scientific community that this protocol actually does what Edwards claims? Scientific data is rigorously examined through a the process of peer review—a paper is written for an established scientific publication, then that paper is reviewed by fellow scientists in the field who will either accept the paper with revisions (I have yet to see a paper that doesn’t have even a few small comments on aspects to be fixed) or reject the paper. When that paper is published, it has been written with a Materials and Methods section so detailed that anyone reading the paper should be able to exactly replicate the procedure to get the same results given identical starting materials and conditions. But instead of Louhelainen writing a peer-reviewed article on the technique and its results, Edwards has written a layman’s book with no oversight to the scientific process. I can’t believe results only viewed by a privileged few. The entire study cannot be published as ‘data not shown’.
  • Assuming this is a legitimate technique, it has tested the DNA found on the shawl of one of the five victims only. This only proves contact with one of the victims and doesn’t scientifically link him to any of the others.
  • While the victim’s DNA was extracted from blood, Kosminki’s DNA was extracted from semen. This proves sexual contact of some kind, but in no way actually puts the knife in his hand. For all we know, when Kosminski left Eddowes following that encounter, she was alive and well. The DNA evidence also provides no information about timelines—the sexual encounter could have been minutes, days, weeks, or months before or after Eddowes’ death.
  • At the time of Eddowes’ death, Kosminski lived with his two brothers, both of whom would have had identical mitochondrial DNA from their mother. So perhaps it was not Kosminski’s semen, but instead, that of one of his brothers?
  • Kosminski’s descendant seems to be shrouded in mystery and apparently Edwards (and the descendant?) wish it to remain that way. As a result, no one else could possibly double check the results of the testing since they have no sample with which to compare the DNA extracted from the semen sample.
  • Call me cynical, but I'm suspicious of any science that comes out as a ‘perfect match’. Science almost never works out that way. Yes, mitochondrial DNA only passes down through the female line, but, over time, DNA naturally mutates and drifts and it is unlikely that 125 year old DNA would be identical to a modern sample. Within a 97 – 99% match, absolutely. But a perfect match? And to have two perfect matches, one to Eddowes’ descendant and another to Kosminski’s? Well… you get my drift. Science is simply not that exact. And once again, we can’t see the results ourselves to have a real opinion on it.
  • The Daily Mail article shows the scientists at work in the lab. Now, I realize this is an inside baseball kind of point, but I work down the hall from the lab of Dr. Hendrik Poinar, a world famous ancient DNA specialist who not only sequenced the Woolly Mammoth genome, but is currently working on Black Plague deaths in an effort to identify Y. pestis as the causative agent. I know the conditions his people work under—an ultra-clean room under negative pressure and enhanced personal protection (to keep the samples clean vs. protecting the lab worker in this case). Yet Louhelainen and his people are shown unrolling the scarf in a typical biosafety level I wet lab, next to an unrelated specimen and other various pieces of lab equipment and anatomical models. Add to this the fact that the scarf was handled by many people over the years (and supposedly never washed) and I’m not convinced that any starting material they collected was uncontaminated.
  • The provenance of the shawl itself has been called into question. Supposedly found at the scene with Eddowes’ body, it was never reported or entered into evidence. Instead, one of the investigating officers removed the bloodstained shawl to give to his wife as a gift. The wife was so horrified by the gift that she put it away and it was then handed down through four or five family generations before being sold to Edwards. But there is no official record of it ever being part of the original murder scene.

My biggest problem with this whole announcement—besides actually naming Kosminski as the Ripper when there is zero proof that he killed even this one woman—is the lack of data. Science works as a transparent system. Show me the DNA gels and then I’ll maybe be on board, but only as far as a DNA match goes. As far as I’m concerned, the identity of Jack the Ripper remains undetermined.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons