Cœmeteria Olisipponis Memorial Collection

This webpage will house more information about the project: Commemorative and Communitive-Based Curation and Study of Unclaimed Human Remains. Engaging Local and Non-Local Communities in Osteological and Mortuary Research.

The retention of human remains for research and teaching purposes is a controversial and contentious matter in North America because of the legacy of archaeology and anatomy. Museums and academic institutions are repatriating many thousands of ancestral human remains in their collections to Indigenous communities as a means of reconciliation and reparation of past wrong doings. As a consequence, academic institutions in Canada are quickly exhausting human remains for research and teaching purposes.

While there is a firm belief that archaeological and anatomical specimens that were collected without consent of own, family or community should be repatriated or destroyed, the issue of consent is also historically and culturally situated. Over the last century in Portugal, thousands of unclaimed human remains in modern managed cemeteries have been periodically disposed of through burial in communal graves or cremation. Relying upon cemetery legislation, many of these remains have been sourced by academic institutions in Portugal for the development of several large skeletal reference collections. Cemeteries in Portugal have reburied or currently cremate a much greater number of unclaimed remains than have been or can be incorporated into collections. As a consequence, this provides the unique opportunity to develop a project where the accumulation of unclaimed human remains in Portuguese cemeteries meets the lack of human skeletal material for research and teaching purposes in Canada.

Specifically, this project results in a partnership between the Municipality of Lisbon, Portugal, and Simon Fraser University for the temporary curation and study of unclaimed human remains from Portugal in Canada. This partnership rests on the principles of community participation, community capacity building, and engagement in a spirit of reciprocity to commemorate the biological and social identities of the unclaimed through the scientific study of their remains and the reflective examination of the mortuary practices by which they were disposed of.

The objectives of the partnership are:

1. Acquire, ship to and prepare in Canada unclaimed remains from cemeteries in the Municipality of Lisbon for long-term curation and study.

2. Explore the various biological and social dimensions of human remains as means of unraveling the past and commemorating the past dead.

3. Explore the cultural and social aspects of cemetery management and mortuary practice in Portugal as means of commemorating the past and the future dead.

Community consultation and a number of outreach, knowledge mobilization and training initiatives will address these objectives and support the principles of the project. Through these means, the partnership will explore, develop and implement thoughtful and forward-thinking practices for the ethical care and study of human remains that are beyond the traditional and current museum stewardship strategies. The nature of the human remains being loaned to Simon Fraser University by the Municipality of Lisbon lends itself to the exploration of these issues in a unique and previously unseen way, where they will address societal issues raised about colonization. For example, through enhanced training, this project will contribute towards repatriation and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

These explorations and strategies will develop a trans-national perspective on human remains, and demonstrate how their value and that of cemetery practices can transcend local boundaries and provide an inspiring and thought-provoking example of community identity building, and how communities far and wide can be connected and can contribute to the resolution of past and current social and scholarly challenges.