The Living, the Dead and the Very Very Dead: Ethics for Historians by Laura Sangha

Students of history are no strangers to ethics, writes Laura Sangha. Indeed, universities have ethics committees and policies which cover instances where the conduct of research involves the interests and rights of others. For historians, this usually means that they must reflect on the possible repercussions of their research on the living – particularly those relatives, friends, descendants and other groups or communities otherwise connected to the subjects that the historian writes about. Indeed, many ethical statements produced by historians concentrate on the interests and rights of the living – for examples see the Royal Historical Society statement on ethics, or the American Historical Association ‘Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct’.[1]

But I don’t work on the living.

I work on the dead. In fact, I work on the very very dead. People who died at least 300 years ago, and in some cases half a millennium ago. And since the dead don’t have any human rights for a while I was rather dismissive of ethics policies. They were for modern colleagues working on the recent past.

Yet eventually I came to think differently.

It dawned on me that while the dead don’t have rights, in almost all human societies the living consider themselves to have universal duties towards the dead. The dead are to be treated with respect, to be honoured with ritual, and not to be spoken ill of. This is why the display of the remains of the very dead (for example as part of the Mary Rose exhibition) is controversial. If these duties to the dead are universal, then surely the passage of time doesn’t diminish them? And if these duties apply to physical remains, then why shouldn’t they apply to textual and visual remains too?

My conclusion was that a scholar working on the very very dead should be just as reflective about treating their subjects with respect and dignity, and only ‘invading their privacy’ for legitimate reasons, when there is proper justification.

One of the things that fed into my awareness of these ethical questions was joining Twitter and being suddenly plunged into an environment where brief, pithy tweets about the dead, often accompanied by a picture, were meat and drink for the platform. In many cases there were no issues about the privacy of dignity of the subjects being ‘shared’ around (‘#otd in 1666 Samuel Pepys buried his cheese to protect it from the Great Fire of London!’), but in other cases the ethical issues were painfully evident.

To give an example, I was particularly uncomfortable to see pictures that were taken from early medical files. What would a person in one of pictures have felt had they known that in the future an image of their body was to be viewed, seen, and (virtually) passed around by hundreds, perhaps thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people? If they thought that the audience would be doctors and that this indignity would improve the lot of others, it’s plausible they would have felt proud. But what if they knew that this indignity was to be visited upon them just for the sake of curiosity? Perhaps even for entertainment? For the purposes of being ‘social’? This is of course an issue that many Twitter users have raised in the past.

Whilst some invasions of privacy seem obviously unjustified, the question remains…what is a clear justification?

At what point does our interest in the dead become a lack of respect, and a denial of dignity? I think many historians would feel comfortable that their own research and publications treat their subjects with the respect and honour that they deserve. Laying bare lives of the past is justified through a sense that interest in these subjects are part of a bigger project of learning, a laudable and legitimate exploration of the human condition across time.

But what about historical fiction?

Does the same justification apply there? I have often found that people are much more ready to sniff at historical fiction authors, particularly those who are felt to take liberties with their subjects, or who are accused of ghoulishly dwelling on personal tragedy. These authors are presumably perceived to be in some way failing in their duties to the dead.  What is the real problem here though? When I hear historical fiction writers talk about what they ‘owe’ to their subjects, and about ‘writing morally’, it is evident that many of them also feel this duty to the dead. They too work within a bigger project of learning, as part of an artistic culture with bigger aims and aspirations.

I sometimes feel that a comparison with very very dead seventeenth-century puritans might be a useful one. These puritans were very concerned about the mixing of the sacred and the profane. They insisted that popular drama was not to be mixed with a sacred message, and the holy words of scripture were not be set to popular tunes. It was inappropriate for popular festivities and customs to take place in church yards. Books were to be instructive and didactic, not entertaining yarns where the serious moral message was smuggled into the epilogue. In short, the sober subject of religion was not in any way compatible with leisure, entertainment, humour, or fun.

When people object to historical fiction on the grounds that it makes ‘entertainment’ of the gruesome, mysterious, or dramatic episodes and people of the past, is their objection based on the same sort of impulse? That it is acceptable if done in seriousness, by solemn historians, with an eye firmly fixed on truth and higher things, but in other contexts it is profane and vulgar?

Yet, doesn’t a historian also want their writing to bring pleasure? To be appreciated for what it is, as well as what it says? Aren’t historians also in the business of entertaining?

And seeing this is a post full of questions I haven’t answered, here is a final one for you. Is it a human right to be forgotten?


[1]One exception is Antoon De Baets, ‘A Code of Ethics for Historians (proposal)’, in Responsible History (New York/Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2009), which acknowledges duties to the dead in article 9. View the code in full here.

2 thoughts on “The Living, the Dead and the Very Very Dead: Ethics for Historians by Laura Sangha

  1. An interesting and thoughtful piece, thanks. There is no simple answer to any of this, though the reactions of contemporary people to things like the display of human remains aren’t always what you might expect. I’m an historian, but used to run museums, and in 2002 put on an exhibition at Chichester District Museum about life, death and bodies in ancient times. The displays included cremated Roman remains and the complete skeleton of an Anglo-Saxon. The exhibition was respectful of its human subjects, and wasn’t prurient, but all the same I expected complaints from some visitors. We didn’t receive a single adverse comment.

    Conversely, one might expect young people nowadays to take a wholly scientific position when it comes to the display of the dead. We ran several annual archaeology days at Chichester Cathedral for A-Level students (17/18 years). These always included an afternoon debate, with the participation of one of the clergy, about the issue of archaeology and human remains. The students were asked to complete questionnaires at the end, and these always showed that a significant number were not comfortable with displaying or retaining the dead. One young man put me on the spot and asked ‘What right do you have to keep human remains in a museum collection?’ The answer was that society gives museums the right – at present – to do this. It is a lawful thing to do.

    When it comes to looking at the personal secrets of, as you put it, ‘the very, very dead’, I share your unease at the thought of what the people in the past may have felt about the matter. If you are writing about individuals, living, dead or very dead, you have to have a sense of empathy, otherwise, you are not going to represent them fairly and the likelihood is that you will be writing bad history. However, in the end I must come down on the side of complete openness when it comes to investigating history. We can’t let what we believe may have been the objections of past people dictate what we look at or write about – but we still have to respect the humanity that they share with us. Beyond this, there are no easy answers!

    Thanks again for such a thought-provoking article.

    Ian Friel Twitter: @DrIanFriel


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