This week the Guardian reported that geneticist Turi King will lead a £100,000 project, funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Leverhulme Trust, with the objective of producing a complete genome sequence of Richard III, a world first for a named historical figure. Two comments within the report raise issues of more general interest regarding the operation of section 25 Burial Act 1857 and the treatment of exhumed bodies, by the secular and ecclesiastical authorities:
“King will carry out the tests on small samples of bone ground to a powder, in addition to the samples she has already taken. Any residue will be buried with the bones”
“We will never have this chance again, wherever he ends up being buried and whenever it ends up happening,” King said. “We have this unique opportunity now and it seemed a shame not to do it,” [Our emphasis in both cases].
A number of archaeologists have concerns regarding the application of section 25 of the 1857 Burial Act to the excavation, investigation and their continued storage or display, and their lobbying of the MoJ and others is described in the dramatically titled article Resolving the Human Remains Crisis in British Archaeology published 15 December 2011. This contains an opinion that
“one or more civil servants or their legal advisors held fundamentalist Christian beliefs about the resurrection of the body at the day of judgement; individuals holding such beliefs would be likely to believe that remains from Christian burials should be re-interred as a matter of religious necessity”,
“[f]undamental Christian belief may further expect that all pre-Christian and non-Christian remains should be reburied”.
Leaving aside the latter point, on which claims for the repatriation of indigenous human remains under human rights provisions probably present a greater challenge, the University of Leicester web site currently addresses the question “Why do Richard’s remains need to be re-interred?”:
“Archaeologists always try to treat human remains with respect, even when they are so old that we don’t know their religion or their beliefs about death. Not all archaeologists feel that Richard III should be reinterred, because future developments in archaeological analytical techniques could eventually provide us with more information about this important find.
In the case of more recent excavated burials where we know the religion of the person, we try to treat their remains in accordance with their religious beliefs. In the case of Christian burials, the Church of England and English Heritage have agreed a set of guidelines for good practice, including an option for re-interment.”
Nevertheless, in the case of Richard III, there appears to have been a general assumption during discussion in the public domain and by the court that his final disposal should be other than re-interment.
Had the initial burial been in consecrated ground falling within the faculty jurisdiction of the Church of England, there would have been less certainty on whether sampling of the remains would have been permitted, as the ecclesiastical courts tend to look more closely at the purpose of undertaking any testing and likelihood of a positive result. However, most of the reported cases concern exhumation for the purpose of sampling for DNA, e.g. Re Saint Nicholas’s, Sevenoaks  1 WLR 1011, Re Holy Trinity Bosham  Fam 125, Re St Mary, Sledmere  1 WLR 1538, rather than sampling on already exhumed remains. However, in the recent case of the bones assumed to be those of Alfred the Great (but weren’t), separate faculties were granted for the exhumation and the analysis of the bones, here and here, although here specific local circumstances demanded a prompt exhumation.
With regard to the new investigation of Richard III’s DNA, the Guardian notes
“[t]he process could reveal his hair and eye colour, his susceptibility to conditions including Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes, whether he was lactose intolerant, and whether the scoliosis that contorted his spine was genetic”.
It will not, alas, reveal whether he had a preference to be buried in Leicester or York