The treatment of human remains

Kapil Sewsaran Satyapal


Concerns regarding treatment of the dead in scientific and public arenas, issues related to consent, respect for human dignity, scientific integrity, societal expectations, and why treatment of cadavers are ethically significant are highlighted.

The display of human remains claimed as ‘edutainment’ or ‘anatomy art’ in Body Worlds is discussed. In this regard, the issues of consent, legal controversy surrounding Body Worlds’ innovator, copycat competitor exhibitions, human rights violations and the legal vacuum within which anatomical specimens are permitted to cross international boarders are explored.

The display of Saartjie Baartman, a Khoisan woman, as a popular novelty, curiosity and political caricature is examined. The role of anatomists, controversies and difficulties in repatriation, and the need for respect for indigenous cultural, religious and traditional values, are discussed.

The exhumation by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and final laying to rest of Phila Portia Ndwande are explored. The TRC report relating to the treatment of human remains, including cultural rights of the dead, sacred rituals and the demand that the ‘amadlozi’ (spirit of the dead) be officially brought home and inaugurated as an ‘ancestor’ are examined.
Boundaries will be pushed only as far as society condones it. Key recommendations include valuable lessons recommended by the TRC; the formation of a multi-stakeholder forum to consider definitive answers to complex issues in the use of unclaimed cadavers; policy relating to legacy collections; guidelines by healthcare and scientific associations; and revision of the National Health Act, 2003.

Author's affiliations

Kapil Sewsaran Satyapal, Department of Clinical Anatomy, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban

Full Text



human remains, treatment

Cite this article

South African Journal of Bioethics and Law 2012;5(1):55-59.

Article History

Date submitted: 2012-02-08
Date published: 2012-06-14

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