The Weight of the Dead

at 12:35 AM
Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

I recently got a call that I've been dreading. Last year, a fellow archaeologist recovered a burial that was eroding out of a cliff. The burial was of a young woman and a baby, and it was sliding out of a Native American site. Representatives from the tribe had asked my friend, who is close to the tribal community, to help remove and rebury the bones in a safe place.

I wondered how I would feel about working on a baby burial. Four years ago I lost my baby son, and I knew that it would be an emotional experience. The call I received was from that tribe, asking me to help. They had only removed half of her; now, the rest of her was coming out. I knew that I had to do it.

The spiritual beliefs of this tribe hold that it is taboo to handle the dead. A few of us are trusted to work with the tribes to remove and rebury bodies according to tribal custom. We removed all metal jewelry and kept angelica root in our mouth during our work. As my partner carefully took out a set of bones, I reached for them-and realized that they were the finger bones of the mother. I was holding her hand. We placed everything in a bag, and I pulled up the bag to take her to her new resting place.

When I lifted the bag, I was stunned by the weight of it. The bag had been warmed by the sun, and her bones were mixed with the dirt surrounding the burial. She was exactly the same weight as my 2 year old daughter, and I could feel, through the bag, her skull, resting in the soil, pressed against my hand, much in the way I would scoop up my daughter when she was asleep. I carried her to her new resting place, carefully laid her into the ground, and watched as her people performed a ceremony and reburied her. I folded up the bag, put it in my pocket, and climbed back down the hill in silence.

With a Perspective, this is Mike Newland.