Day of the dead

The exhumation of Arafat's body raises the question: when does scientific imperative shade into idle curiosity, and who gets to decide?

THIS week, the pale stone tomb in Ramallah that houses the remains of the former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was pried open. Researchers plan to test samples of Arafat's skeleton for signs of poison, after suspicious concentrations of the radioactive isotope polonium-210 were found on his clothes and toothbrush during an investigation this summer. Arafat's final illness has been a source of speculation since his death in 2004; while medical records show his immediate cause of death was a stroke, many Palestinians believe he was murdered by Israel.

Arafat joins a macabre parade of recently exhumed famous figures. Just this month, Danish researchers announced that tests on the bones of the astronomer Tycho Brahe (exhumed in Prague in 2010) showed he probably perished of natural causes and not, as some had suggested, after being poisoned by his assistant, Johannes Kepler. Also in 2010, Simón Bolívar, Bobby Fischer and Nicolae Ceausescu were exhumed. Christopher Columbus was exhumed in 2003, Jesse James in 1995, Lee Harvey Oswald in 1981 — the list goes on.

Advances in DNA testing, biochemical analysis and other scientific techniques have unlocked the secrets of the dead from their blood, hair, teeth and bones in ways they never could have imagined. We can now use exhumations to lay to rest persistent rumours about the locations and contents of famous graves, and clear people like poor Kepler of murder charges. Exhumations can also tell us about the ailments of famous figures: fragments of Beethoven's skull, left over from a 19th-century exhumation, have suggested that his poor health may have been the result of lead poisoning.

But when does scientific imperative shade into idle curiosity — and who gets to decide? Surprisingly, there's little widely agreed-upon policy to guide us through this ethical quandary, and disputes have mostly been a matter for local courts. The regulations that protect living patients from scientific inquiry — designed to safeguard privacy and informed consent — generally disappear where the long dead are concerned. And yet, just because the dead feel no pain doesn't mean they can't be harmed.

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