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In a museum in Cuba, the skeleton of a slave is on display. He is named, and he died near the end of Cuban slavery, about 1880. He died in his twenties.

I stood looking into the display case. Of course, it was fascinating. I thought:

  • This is the best preserved skeleton I have ever seen
  • He had a magnificent body, large and strong
  • He had no dental decay at all. How did that happen with so much sugar about?

But also, it was disturbing. I thought:

  • He was a slave. He had no autonomy in life and no say in what happened to his dead body.
  • This is not long ago. When I was a child, I talked with my great aunt, who was alive when this man was still a slave.
  • Is placing his skeleton on display giving some respect to him after all this time, or is it merely continuing his exploitation?
  • Is displaying the body of a powerful pharaoh different from displaying the body of the pharaoh's slave?

Clearly the museum curators think that this display is proper. But I am not so sure, and would like to understand how to think about whether I should be fascinated or appalled. I note the questions Ought we respect the privacy of the deceased? and Does a person own his/her body? but don't find an answer there.

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I guess there are two types of responses. An emotional one and a logical one.

If you just base your decision on human empathy, and don't even consider that he was a slave, then his body should be respected regardless of circumstance. Respect, however, may vary from culture to culture. I certainly couldn't bear the thought of a loved one's body be displayed in such a way. So I guess that his relatives would feel the same way. However, human remains are treated differently around the world. Some bury their dead, others burn them, while others let them be devoured by vultures.

A logical response, devoid of any emotion, could be that after a person is dead, then their bodies bare no connection to them anymore. Can you imagine modern medical science without cadavers?

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    +1. I would go along with your logical response but there is also the question of the effect such displays have on the attitudes of the living, and this may be the real issue here. . – PeterJ Oct 18 '18 at 16:37

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