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Why We Want Their Bodies Back

As humans have evolved, they've learned there are good reasons not to bury an empty coffin

By Kristine Larsen and Robert Sapolsky
Feb 1, 2002 6:00 AMJul 19, 2023 6:28 PM


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Last week I got a phone call that I'd been waiting for since 1973. That year I was 16 years old and a student at an alternative high school in New York City. My schoolmates and I were wanna-be hippies, jealous of our older siblings who'd gotten to live the 1960s. That summer there was a rock festival upstate at Watkins Glen that turned out to be one of the biggest ever. Among the 600,000 who made the pilgrimage were two of our friends: Bonnie Bickwit, with her peasant blouse and bandanna, and Mitchell Weiser, with his ponytail. They met up at the summer camp just outside the city where Bonnie was working and hitched to the rock festival. We never saw them again.

Everything we knew about Bonnie and Mitch convinced us they hadn't run away. Something had happened to them. Throughout that fall, we talked to grizzled rural sheriffs and reporters. We spent our weekends posting pictures of Bonnie and Mitch in the East Village in Manhattan, near the buildings of cults that were rumored to kidnap kids. We had nightmares about rape and torture and murder. The loss of these friends was a galvanizing event in my adolescence. Ultimately, it turned out to be the longest unsolved teen disappearance in the nation's history.

Then suddenly the long search ended. Mitch and Bonnie's classmates had gathered for a 25th reunion. A ceremony held in their memory got some news coverage. The right person saw a report on a missing persons show and called the police.

The man told police that a teenage couple he had encountered leaving Watkins Glen had drowned. The couple fit the description of Bonnie and Mitch, and the details of the man's story rang true. The news quickly spread by phone and e-mail among people who now barely remember each other. Amid the muted excitement, we all kept coming back to the same issue: If this man's story is true, the bodies of Bonnie and Mitch should have been found. Show us the bodies, we thought, and the mystery of their disappearance will be resolved once and for all.

The desire for tangible proof of the death of someone we know or love is a natural human impulse. But often that desire extends well beyond a purely rational need for certainty. In circumstances where there is not the remotest chance that someone is still alive, we still expend great energy and often put other lives on the line in order to retrieve the dead. Consider, for example, the extreme risks taken by an international team of divers last fall as they worked around the clock for more than two weeks in choppy waters off the coast of Norway to recover corpses from the sunken Russian submarine Kursk. In the wake of the terrorist attacks last September 11, the intense emotional longing that is often associated with efforts to recover remains was especially pronounced. As the days and weeks passed following the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, the United States was brought to an awed silence by the nearest thing we've had in generations to a holy national rite: the search for the dead at Ground Zero.

Missing persons notices posted near Ground Zero after September 11 symbolize the uncertainty created when bodies cannot be recovered after death. Authorities have yet to determine the exact number of people killed in the twin towers. An initial estimate of 6,700 dwindled months later to approximately 3,100.

The quest to get the body back is a drama played out in an endless variety of settings. In Chile, for instance, where civilians of the wrong opinion vanished during the murderous reign of Augusto Pinochet decades ago, the now-elderly mothers of the disappeared still gather to demand: "Give us even a single bone of our children." Sometimes the demand for remains crosses national or cultural boundaries and is passed down from generation to generation. Recently Spanish authorities returned the body of a chief to his native Botswana more than a century after it was stolen from its fresh grave by looters and carted off for display in a museum. An even longer-standing dispute was resolved in 1993 when the Japanese made reparations for a 1597 invasion of Korea by returning some grisly spoils of war: 20,000 human noses.

It is tempting to assume that such a widespread obsession with retrieving bodily remains is rooted in a deep-seated human need to ritualistically put the dead to rest in a respectful manner: In the words of an old blues song, "See that my grave's kept clean." But, in fact, death rituals vary dramatically from culture to culture. While most societies traditionally bury or cremate their dead, others such as the Masai in East Africa discard corpses for scavengers. And even among cultures that bury their dead, the sense of a grave as hallowed ground is not necessarily shared. As late as the 19th century in northern Europe, burial was akin to leasing an apartment: Graves were intermittently dug up and the remains discarded to make room for the next tenants. While the Western model of death involves grief and whispered respect, the Nyakyusa in Malawi have ornate funerary rituals of mocking the deceased.

Cultures even differ as to when they decide someone is good and dead. And sometimes individuals who we would consider robustly alive are treated as deceased. In traditional Haitian society, if a person does something deeply taboo, a shaman turns the miscreant into a slavelike zombie; thereafter, the community believes he inhabits the world of the dead. Conversely, some societies continue hearty, active interchanges with people who are no longer alive. In traditional Chinese society in Singapore, younger siblings have to wait their turn to get married, so sometimes an older sibling who dies unwed is betrothed in a "ghost marriage" to someone appropriate and deceased. Even in our own culture and others that are preoccupied with retrieving the dead, with sufficient passage of time (and with the demise of the immediate kin of the deceased) the respectful act becomes just the opposite. Although we consider it a moral imperative to try to recover corpses from the Kursk, doing the same to any skeletal remains on the Titanic would be seen as inappropriately disturbing the dead.

So why do we go to extraordinary lengths to get the body back?

The most obvious reason is to make sure the person is really dead. Until the invention of the modern stethoscope about 185 years ago, determining if someone was dead or just in a coma was often difficult. The fact that some people were buried alive gave way to laws in the 17th century mandating a waiting period before burial; aristocrats stipulated in their wills that bodily insults intended to wake the not-dead, such as cutting off toes, were to be inflicted on their corpses. By the 19th century, inventors offered coffins with escape hatches. In German deadhouses, which served as way stations before burial, the fingers of corpses were attached to alarm bells. Just in case.

Many nonhuman primates also take time before literally letting go of their dead. This is something that I have observed in my own studies of baboons. An infant dies, and rather than discarding the body, the mother carries it around for days afterward. Sociobiologists argue that there is an evolutionary reason for such behavior: Females who have the occasional offspring revive from a coma pass on more copies of their genes.

With humans, the desire to get the body back is intertwined with the irrational energy that we put into denial. Beginning with our first toddler encounter with a dead robin in the backyard and our parents' uncomfortable "It's only sleeping," the Western model of death is one of euphemism and denial. As first demonstrated in the landmark work of Elisabeth KŸbler-Ross, people in our society tend to react to death or the news of terminal illness with a stereotyped sequence of stages: denial, typically followed by anger, bargaining, depression, and if one is lucky, acceptance. In the context of the euphemistic model of death—Grandpa simply goes to the hospital and does not come back—the process of mourning is viewed as hitting bottom in order to move past the denial stage. Thus the tendency of so many of us to consider it a bracing necessity to take the bull of denial by the horns and ask that the coffin be opened, so that we can look upon our loved one's face. For that, we need the body.

Sometimes we want the body back in order to learn how the person died. This can be a vast source of solace: "It was a painless death; he never knew what was happening." The quest for how involves the ghastly world of forensics, where sequence is everything: "She was already dead by the time X was done." And at times the solace comes from learning something about the deceased by the nature of his death: the heroic act, the sacrifice that affirms a group's values. In his story "A River Runs Through It," Norman MacLean wrote of the youthful murder of his hell-raising brother. He had been beaten to death by thugs unknown, and the autopsy revealed that the small bones in his hands were broken. And thus, "like many Scottish ministers before him, [MacLean's father] had to derive what comfort he could from the faith that his son had died fighting." Similarly, many people were relieved to discover that passengers on the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania on September 11 had apparently put up a valiant struggle.

The desire to get the body back is also sometimes associated with what we believe to be the spiritual well-being of the dead. The Tlingit of Alaska, for example, believe that a body must be recovered for reincarnation to occur. Among the Nuba of Sudan, men are circumcised only after death, a prerequisite for an afterlife. A top-of-the-line Church of England funeral requires a body that can be blessed and put to eternal rest. Some cultures need not only the body but all of the body. Orthodox Jews save teeth, amputated limbs, and excised appendixes for eventual burial; that is why some Israelis will comb the site of a terrorist bombing for scatterings of shredded flesh.

Another major reason for wanting the body back is for the well-being, spiritual or otherwise, of those in control of the body. In Grave Matters, a surprisingly entertaining book on cross-cultural aspects of death, the anthropologist Nigel Barley writes, "The dead do not own their corpses." Funerary ritual, with the body as its centerpiece, is an unmatched opportunity to share, affirm, inculcate, and revitalize group values. A well-scripted funeral for a political martyr can galvanize potential crusaders into a self-sacrificing, homicidal frenzy. On the other hand, Barley argues, few settings match a state funeral as an opportunity for a government to signal power and solidarity. Consider the seemingly odd act of the atheist Soviet Union of the 1920s in preserving the body of Lenin in perpetuity like some Slavic saint. The message to the Russian peasantry: "We have crushed and replaced the church."

The group value of a funeral holds even when it is not for the mighty. Consider how we eulogize the dead. The overwhelming pressure is to glorify, exalt, and exaggerate the good acts of the person. This can sometimes involve downright invention if the person was a scoundrel or if the eulogist is a hired gun who didn't actually know the deceased. In our society the good acts are drawn from a list heavily featuring fidelity, devotion to young children and aged parents, religiosity, a robust work ethic, and a fondness for barbecuing. On a certain level, the concrete rituals of a funeral are lessons for the next generation. The values eulogized represent a remarkably effective vehicle of conformity, producing that superego of a whisper in the ears of so many of us: "How do I want to be remembered?"

Thus the pressure at a funeral to make the deceased seem like a saint. And when the funeral is for someone whom that society really does consider a saint, watch out. When Khomeini died in Iran, frenzied crowds of mourners were so eager to touch their beloved ayatollah that they tipped over his coffin and shredded his burial shroud. Nigel Barley tells the story of the death in 1231 of Elisabeth of Thuringia, someone so clearly bound for sainthood that a crowd quickly dismembered her body for holy relics. Even more bizarre is the story of the 11th-century St. Romuald, who in his old age made the mistake of noting plans to move from his Umbrian town; the locals, worried that some other burg would wind up with the holy relics of his body, plotted his murder.

The body can be a vehicle for resolving cultural conflicts. After a small Japanese fishing vessel was accidentally sunk last year by a Navy submarine, the U.S. government mounted a multimillion-dollar effort to recover the dead. A professor of religion advised officials on the culturally sensitive wording to be used in military communiqués about the operation. Corpses were raised to the surface after dusk and, in accordance with Buddhist tradition, placed in body bags feet first.

By contrast, sometimes a body can be a vehicle for one society to express values that are hostile to another society. There is a Maori tale of a man, grievously injured in battle, who begs his comrades to quickly cut off his head and retreat with it so that it won't be appropriated, shrunken, and displayed as a trophy by the enemy. As a corollary, recall the visceral power of the image of American dead being dragged through the streets by crowds of Somalis. When Zaire's kleptocratic ruler Mobutu was in the final days of his dictatorship, he is believed to have spent his time exhuming the bones of his ancestors so that they would not be desecrated by rebels. Likewise, even though there was no immediate threat of hostility when the United States gave up the Panama Canal, bodies were disinterred from the American cemetery and shipped home along with the microwave ovens and VCRs.

In the case of Bonnie and Mitch, my schoolmates and I realized years ago that they were never coming home. But because we never got the bodies back, there will always be a measure of uncertainty about what happened to them and about the man who finally made that phone call to the police. Allyn Smith was 24 at the time of the Watkins Glen rock festival. On the way home he hitched a ride in a Volkswagen bus. There was a scrawny young couple riding in the back, also hitching from the festival. Smith and the driver smoked a joint. It was a hot day and there was a river nearby. They stopped, planning to cool off in the water. As Smith crouched to take off his shoes, wondering at the wisdom of going in the rough water, he heard a shout. He turned to see that the girl was in the river. The boy—her companion—leaped in to try to save her. Then they were both swept away, down the rapids, still very much alive.

That is the story Smith told the police. No names were exchanged in the van, but he overheard the two talking about a summer camp where the girl had worked and recalled identifying details about her clothes. It would appear that the couple had been Bonnie and Mitch. Smith is now cooperating with the police, trying to identify the stretch of river where he says they disappeared. "I felt he was credible," says Roy Streever, the investigating detective with the New York State police. Nonetheless, something didn't happen that day. Smith, an athletic Navy vet, didn't try to rescue Bonnie and Mitch. Nor did the driver of the bus. Eventually they drove off. At the next exit, Smith got out and headed in another direction. The driver said he'd make an anonymous phone call to the police from a gas station and report that the two kids had been swept down the river. Police have no record that a call was made.

The parents of Bonnie and Mitch had to cope not only with the loss of their children but also with a burden of horrible uncertainty. One father and one stepfather went to their graves never knowing what had happened. The rest of us finally got the answer to the mystery that plagued us for decades.

Once we were kids who believed enough in our immortality that we would hitch rides with strangers. Now we flaunt the same irrationality by cheating on our low-cholesterol diets. Once we had not yet learned that life brings tragedies beyond control. Now we wonder how we can spare our own children from that knowledge. Once we lost two friends and could only imagine florid, violent sins of commission. Now, instead, we have a doughy, middle-aged lesson about the toxic consequences of quiet sins of omission and indifference.

Sometimes, when you get the body back, or at least find out the whole story, you learn something critical about the nature of the living and of those who knew all along what happened.

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