Where is the Line Between “Respectful” and “Objectifying”? Some Thoughts on Death Positivity and Academia.

I recently finished reading Caitlyn Doughty’s book, From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death (2017), which I absolutely loved. As an archaeologist whose research is partially focused on funerary archaeologies, I was happy to find a non-judgemental book detailing the diversity of death practices and cultures around the world. However, I couldn’t help but wonder about “death positivity” (for example, see Doughty’s movement for more positive and normalised engagement with death and dying – see more in this blog post) within academia…what actually is the line between “respectful” and “objectifying”?

Note: This is a 3D-printed replica of a human skull.

For starters, let me note that Doughty makes clear that her death positivity movement, known as The Order of the Good Death, is based on respect – particularly in regards to the deceased person’s wishes, the cultural values and ways in which death is engaged with that are non-Western/European, and not viewing said death cultures as “oddities” (Doughty 2011, Kelly 2017). In this blog post, however, I am speaking of “death positivity” as a broader movement, which includes but is not exclusive to Doughty’s specific approach. In particular, I am interested in the sort of “death positivity” that  appears in research disciplines and fields that are intimately connected to death studies, such as bioarchaeology and osteology.

As someone who works within these fields, I have a lot of first hand experience of seeing how academics engage with death, both as a concept and as a tangible thing in the form of remains. Amongst some academics, it’s hard not to shake this feeling of pride in their hands-on engagement with the dead – whether it’s by writing about death freely and without fear in literature and papers and texts, or by trying to share these positive interactions with others through hands-on workshops and demonstrations and, again, death positive movements, to show that there is nothing to fear from the dead or from death itself.

But at what point can “respect” cross into “objectification”? Many archaeologists decorate their offices with models of skeletons – sometimes even with real human bones – is that respectful adoration of their research subjects, or reduction of human remains to their ornamental value (side note: I am currently writing this from my home office which is covered with animal bones – both real and fake – so this is not me trying to be sanctimonious or preachy!)? What about how we approach physical analysis of the dead? I know some scientists who refer to their research subjects by name and treat them as though they were alive – on the opposite side, I also know scientists who give unnamed individuals names of their choosing and develop nicknames or imaginary backstories. Is this humanising their research subjects? Or is it (unintentionally) demonstrating dominance over the narrative of a deceased person’s life (and death)?

Perhaps the most serious example of this question is when it crosses paths with research ethics – for example, when a skeleton that could be considered scientifically important for X reason is also being called for immediate repatriation and reburial by the deceased person’s living descendants (Lambert 2012). Is refusing to repatriate these remains until scientific analysis is done a sign of “respect” – in that the deceased person is now (posthumously) contributed to scientific knowledge – or is it “objectification” – in that the deceased person is reduced to data? I’d like to believe that most scientists today would agree with the latter and choose to repatriate and rebury the remains…but, unfortunately, there are still those who decry these acts of respect as “social justice gone awry” or “anti-science”.

I don’t blame folks who think the idea of physical analysis of human remains as a whole could be disrespectful (not including situations in which one has the deceased person’s consent to donate their body to science, of course). Archaeological research of human remains has resulted in a greater understanding of the past and the people who lived within it…but often as the result of racist, colonial approaches that dehumanises and objectifies others. Science has (finally!) begun to take ethical considerations seriously, but we still have a long way to go to regain a semblance of morality in the grander scheme of things.

As with many – if not all! –  of these blog posts, I don’t necessarily have an answer to the overarching question. I think there’s less to debate with regards to repatriation cases, particularly when it concerns the bodies of Indigenous ancestors. But, despite how circular and perhaps unanswerable these thoughts and questions may be, I wonder if we, as academics and scientists who work with death, need to think more about our actions and how we ultimately contribute to death cultures today.


Doughty, C. (2011) The Tenets of the Death Positive Movement. The Order of the Good Death. Retrieved from http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/death-positive.

Doughty, C. (2017) From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Kelly, K. (2017) Welcome the Reaper: Caitlyn Doughty and the ‘Death Positivity’ Movement. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/27/caitlin-doughty-death-positivity

Lambert, P.M. (2012) Ethics and Issues in the Use of Human Skeletal Remains in Paleopathology. In A.L. Grauer (ed) A Companion to Paleopathology. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 17-33.


Curse-Breakers and Thieves: Looted Artefacts, the Antiquities Market, and…Harry Potter, too?

“Are you seeking a challenging career involving travel, adventure, and substantial, danger-related treasure bonuses? Then consider a position with Gringotts Wizarding Bank, who are currently recruiting Curse-Breakers for thrilling opportunities abroad.”

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, p. 606

In the Harry Potter franchise, Bill Weasley is a Curse-Breaker for Gringotts Wizarding Bank. He is based in Egypt, where his job consists of breaking curses placed upon ancient tombs and treasures, ultimately sending anything he successfully retrieves to Gringotts.

So…um…does this mean that part of the Wizarding World’s economy is based on looting?

Screenshot_2019-08-15 gringotts treasures - Google Search
Harry, Ron, and Hermione break into a Gringotts vault in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Unfortunately, we don’t learn much about the job itself beyond the fact that it’s an Indiana Jones-type treasure hunting profession that uses magic to circumvent any nasty curses or magical traps. We don’t even know what Gringotts does with the treasures obtained by Curse-Breakers, leading to many to believe that they are somehow incorporated into the bank’s circulation of gold into the economy, or that Gringotts simply enjoys collecting and guarding treasures of any kind.

There’s a theory that perhaps Curse-Breakers retrieve goblin-made treasures from ancient tombs and vaults – as explained by Bill Weasley in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007), goblins view the creators of an object as the true owner of said object, not the purchaser, and that many goblins would prefer that goblin-made artefacts be returned to goblins once the wizard owner has died (p.517). So, with that perspective, Curse-Breakers aren’t looting, but repatriating items back to goblins. However, this is just speculation – goblins in the Harry Potter universe keep their secrets closely guarded, given the tense relations between goblin and human communities; in the same passage referenced above, for instance, Ron angrily mentions that goblins refuse to teach humans how they create their objects in response to Griphook’s anger at human wizards hoarding wand ownership and magic from goblins.

Harry enters his Gringotts vault for the first time in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone…that’s a LOT of gold!

It wouldn’t surprise me if looted objects was secretly a huge component of the Wizarding World’s economy, though…after all, in the real world, the illegal antiquities market is huge. Recently, Hobby Lobby was revealed to have spent over $200 million for looted artefacts from Iraq to display in the company’s president’s Museum of the Bible (Arraf 2018). Even online marketplaces like Amazon and eBay have found themselves advertising the sale of stolen artefacts (Medrano 2017). These items sell for enormous amounts of money, given the cultural and social prestige surrounding “authentic” ancient artefacts.

There’s some good news, however. Archaeologists are becoming more militant against not only the illicit antiquities market, but the selling of any and all antiquities on the open market. Why? Well, it’s become what some Blythe A. Bowman refers to as a “grey” market – even the “reputable” markets can find themselves selling looted artefacts that (Bowman 2008, Stevenson 2017). A very timely example can be seen with auction house Christie’s, which is currently being sued by Egypt after they had sold a bust of King Tutankhamen for $5 million – Egyptian officials believe that the bust was actually looted during the 1970’s and has had its origins falsified to pretend its a legal purchase (Cascone 2019).

Personally, I can’t put any trust in the idea of selling artefacts, regardless of the market being “reputable” or not. If we’re going to be serious about repatriation in archaeology, I’d argue that we can no longer continue the high profile sale of artefacts. It diminishes the cultural and heritage value of artefacts to a monetary one, which often inflates to the point that only Western countries made rich through imperialism and colonialism (amongst other acts of violence) can afford these items for their collections and museums. This continues the cycle of museum-sanctioned looting of items from their cultural origins, where artefacts are not only physically, but also financially inaccessible to their places of origin. It’s a continuation of colonialism, plain and simple.

Anyway, can someone ask J.K. Rowling if the Wizarding World economy is based off of looting, because I’m really starting to worry about the perceived morality and ethics of being part of the magical community…


Arraf, J. (2018) Hobby Lobby’s Illegal Antiquities Shed Light on a Lost, Looted Ancient City in Iraq. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2018/06/28/623537440/hobby-lobbys-illegal-antiquities-shed-light-on-a-lost-looted-ancient-city-in-ira?t=1565874644457.

Bowman, B.A. (2008) Transnational Crimes Against Culture: Looting at Archaeoloical Sites and the “Grey Market” in Antiquities. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 24 (3). pp. 225-242.

Cascone, S. (2019) Egypt will Sue Christie’s over the $6 Million Sale of a King Tut Sculpture Officials Claim was Looted from a Temple. ArtNet News. Retrieved from https://news.artnet.com/art-world/egypt-christies-lawsuit-king-tut-sculpture-1595746.

Medrano, K. (2017) Are Amazon and eBay the New Black Market? Archaeologists Warn Against Ancient Artifacts Sold Online. Newsweek. Retrieved from https://www.newsweek.com/amazon-ebay-archaeology-black-market-looting-artifacts-704385.

Rowling, J.K. (2003) Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Rowling, J.K. (2007) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Stevenson, A. (2017) Why Archaeological Antiquities Should Not Be Sold on the Open Market, Full Stop. The Conversation. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/why-archaeological-antiquities-should-not-be-sold-on-the-open-market-full-stop-54928.