Why Are Authorities Keeping Human Remains?

photo of a human skull sketch
Zain Murdock
May 13, 2024

A Mississippi state senator recently introduced Senate Bill 2268, requiring authorities to stick to procedure, enter information on missing or unidentified people, and test the DNA of human remains. This is a timely piece of legislation. Hundreds of unclaimed bodies were recently found buried behind a Mississippi jail. But authorities haven’t just been burying people trapped by the criminal legal system.

For decades, it had been common practice for coroners, police, and other officials to keep unidentified human remains for “educational purposes” or even “their own personal collections.” And in Alabama, the bodies of people who died while incarcerated had been returned to their families with organs missing. But this practice goes way back.

Incarcerated people, dead or alive, have historically been used for dangerous and unethical medical experimentation. And the logic of keeping human remains links back to the practice of keeping “souvenirs” after a lynching.

That practice, as described by historians like Harvey Young, both normalized and memorialized the dehumanizing violence of lynchings. Postcards captured the image. Fingers and teeth became trophies, commodified “captive object[s] to be owned, displayed, and, quite possibly, traded.”

But, just as Black activists used these souvenirs as evidence in anti-lynching campaigns, today’s advocacy can highlight the thefts of the unclaimed, unidentified, and incarcerated as part of a legacy of anti-Black violence worth fighting.