Family, Humanitarianism, Care: Troubled Categories for Corpses

Adam Rosenblatt
Associate Professor of the Practice
International Comparative Studies
Duke University

Since the mid-1980s, forensic scientists have played a growing role in the international response to mass violence. They have provided key evidence to war crimes tribunals and truth commissions around the world, in addition to identifying bodies and returning them to loved ones. A rich and evolving dialogue about ethics has accompanied this work; however, the place of the corpse in this dialogue is a strange one.  The corpse is the central object of humanitarian and scientific attention—sought after, dug up, re-assembled, and analyzed; yet it is also surprisingly marginal within the medico-legal and human rights vocabularies in which experts discuss their work. This talk, based on over a decade of research on forensic science and human rights, focuses on three concepts that remain politically and ethically troublesome in the field: family, humanitarianism, and care. All three concepts raise questions about the meanings ascribed to the corpse, its importance to truth and healing after mass violence, and what kinds of repair are (still) possible for the dead.

Adam Rosenblatt researches at the intersections of human rights, social justice, and care of the dead. Before coming to Duke, he was the Assistant Dean for Global Engagement at Champlain College and a Visiting Assistant Professor of Peace, Justice, and Human Rights at Haverford College. His first book, Digging for the Disappeared: Forensic Science after Atrocity (Stanford University Press, 2015), explored how scientific experts exhuming mass graves interact with international institutions, grieving families and their dead loved ones. His next book is about citizen groups who labor to reclaim spaces of the marginalized dead, including African-American burial grounds and mental asylum cemeteries. He lives with his partner, Amanda Levinson, who is co-founder of the refugee- and disaster-aid startup, and his two children, Leo and Sal.