In my opinion, exhumations can be a valuable research tool. The dead are dead, after all, while the living are still learning. But not all exhumations produce results of equal value, and we need more debate about when such digs are worthwhile. If conclusive proof of poisoning can be found from Arafat’s exhumation (a big if), the jackhammers might be justified.
But consider the request, motivated by a plan to analyze whether the Mona Lisa might be a disguised self-portrait, to disinter Leonardo da Vinci from his resting place in the Loire Valley. While it’s an intriguing question, is the answer really worth disturbing Leonardo’s grave? If we decide we don’t care, are we prepared for the idea that no one will care what happens to our own remains?
Some ethicists and legal scholars hope to create better frameworks for answering these questions, perhaps through the creation of “biohistorical review boards” that could analyze requests for exhumations and other analyses of the dead, much like the review boards that now weigh applications for studies involving living human subjects. Such boards might also consider whether future technologies could yield better results from exhumation — preventing people like Arafat from being dug up again every time there’s a scientific breakthrough.