COOL CLASSES: “Human Rights and the Dead”

This course explores the material presence of dead bodies as reminders of the effects of violence, objects of mourning, and problems for those who seek to move forward into a new, post-conflict future. It focuses especially on forensic science as a tool for clarifying the fate of victims, prosecuting perpetrators, and identifying remains on behalf of loved ones.

Class name: “Human Rights and the Dead”

Taught by: Visiting Assistant Professor of Peace, Justice, and Human Rights Adam Rosenblatt

Here is what Rosenblatt had to say about his class:

This class is fundamentally about how social life, in all of its complexity, lives on even as our bodies cross the boundary between life and death. In many cases, this means that violence, indignity, and injustice can continue past life and into death. We discover how ethnicity, gender, race, and other inequalities affect the fates and resting places of dead bodies while studying many different contexts: from the post-genocide mass grave to the repatriation of indigenous remains to the fates of migrants who die in the Sonoran Desert or Mediterranean Sea. But the idea that social life continues into death is about more than inequality and injustice alone.

The class explores many forms of care and memory that continue past death, linking together the dead and the living: whether it is the new, politically powerful relationships formed between family members of the “disappeared” as they fight for justice, or the kind of work Haverford College’s very own [Director of Web Communications] Jennifer O’Donnell does with the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, working to revitalize a Philadelphia cemetery whose significance is not only historical but also deeply personal—a place of both mourning and community. I guess that’s actually one of the greatest lessons the course offers students—that wherever there is mourning, along with a sense of irreparable harm one will also discover new grounds for building community. As the author Joseph Bottum once wrote, “The living give us crowds. The dead give us communities.”

The most obvious reason that I teach this class is that I have spent over 10 years researching the political and ethical issues that face forensic scientists as they investigate mass graves after human rights violations; this is the subject of my book, Digging for the Disappeared: Forensic Science after Atrocity. Forensic investigation became a crucial form of post-conflict humanitarian activity in the 1980s in Argentina, at the graves of that country’s “disappeared” political prisoners. It has since “gone global” and uncovered many complex issues that arise as the dead victims of violence are exhumed and identified.

However, in teaching the class, I have discovered so many issues that fascinate me and were not originally part of my research agenda. Recently, for example, the class hosted Brian Palmer and Erin Hollaway Palmer, a couple who are making a documentary about the work they’re doing in historic African-American cemeteries in the American South. It was a powerful reminder of the complex and multi-faceted ways in which structural violence and racism exist in this country—that segregation continues not only in our schools, but also in where we lay our dead to rest and what provisions our society makes for the care of those spaces.

When I first offered this class, I was worried that students would not sign up due to the daunting title and potentially depressing material. But I’ve found that they quickly understand that the fear and shame often attached to talking about death in our society is not inevitable or particularly constructive. They tell me that they’ve come to value the chance to think about what connects them to the dead—their own family’s dead, or the dead in a broader cultural sense. They’re also rightly proud the “memory work” they carry out themselves throughout the semester, for example in our class’s digital scholarship project, “The Atlas of the Dead.”

See what other courses the Peace, Justice, and Human Rights Program is offering this semester.

Photo from a class field trip to Mount Moriah Cemetery by Patrick Montero. 

Cool Classes is a series that highlights interesting, unusual, or unique courses that enrich a Haverford education.