Who Owns the Dead? The Science and Politics of Death at Ground Zero

September 11, 2017 -
4:30pm to 6:00pm

Abstract: After the September 11th terrorist attacks, New York City’s chief medical examiner promised that he and his staff would spare no expense in trying to identify every victim and human body part larger than a thumbnail and return them to their families. Sixteen years later, 1,640 of the 2,753 victims killed in Manhattan have been identified. In this talk, I will discuss these efforts, as well as the profound impact that human remains had on the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site and the creation of the memorial there. I will demonstrate that the forensic recovery effort cannot be understood simply on scientific grounds because it was at its heart a political and moral statement. I will examine the challenges of dealing with politically significant deaths for families of the victims, for those charged with memorializing them, and for government officials managing the recovery effort. I will also explore ongoing legal and cultural disputes about who ought to have a say in memorialization efforts and disposition of unidentified remains—or to put it another way, who owns the dead. I will conclude by arguing that the medical examiner’s promise has had profound impacts, both positive and negative, on families and the recovery effort. 

Location and Address

Humanities Center - 601 Cathedral of Learning