Should The Hunterian Museum's Giant Skeleton Be Buried At Sea?

M@
By M@ Last edited 74 months ago
Should The Hunterian Museum's Giant Skeleton Be Buried At Sea?

Anyone who has ever visited the Hunterian Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields will remember this one exhibit. The skeletal remains of Charles Byrne, the 'Irish Giant' who stood 7' 7'' tall, are something of an unofficial mascot for the anatomy museum, as the mal-stuffed walrus is for the Horniman Museum and that weird jar of moles is for the Grant.

But now there are renewed calls for the skeleton to be buried at sea. It's a tale of 230-year-old last wishes, corpse robbing and the grey area between science, education and morality.

Because of his great height, Charles Byrne's frame was an object of curiosity for 18th Century anatomist John Hunter. The famous surgeon had an equally famous collection of medical curiosities, and the giant must have looked like the ultimate trophy. Byrne left specific instructions that, upon his death, his body should be buried at sea, so as to avoid Hunter's attentions. But the prize was too great. When Byrne died aged just 22, Hunter bribed his wards and seized the body.

The remains have been on public display ever since, and have attracted occasional objections from those who think Byrne's wishes for burial should be met, even now. The campaign gained added weight this week from a paper in the British Medical Journal. The authors claim that all possible medical insights from the skeleton have now been gleaned, including a DNA extraction. They call for the remains to be buried at sea as a celebration of the unfortunate man's life and the posthumous role he's played in advancing medical knowledge.

It seems like a wonderful idea — that society might still care about, and eventually honour, the wishes of a man who died 230 years ago is a credit to human morality. But there's a thorny, practical side to all this that might get messy for London's museums. How many other specimens in Hunter's collection might hold similar claims? What about human remains on show elsewhere? The mummies at the British Museum were not only disinterred from their rightful resting places, but also transported to another country. If we lose Byrne, do we lose them too, and what would that mean for museums' educational remits (and budgets, come to that)? Honouring the wishes of someone who died a quarter of a millennium ago could open a can of worms, if not a jar of moles.

Image by Paul Dean under Creative Commons Licence.

Last Updated 21 December 2011

Kate

This is a dilemma. Part of me thinks yes bury him at sea and just have a copy of his skeleton. On the other hand does it really matter after all it was over 230 years ago and them wherever he is now I'm sure won't care.

I suppose the difference is that he wished it in his will whereas the mummies did not have the same personal requests.

Our museums would be  much poorer places if we had to get rid of all our human remains.

Kate from http://www.love-london-museums...

JHughes

Just to clarify, no will has ever been located for Charles Byrne, nor any other primary source material relating to his request to be buried at sea.  His wishes were only ever reported in the newspapers and magazines at the time of his death.  And we know how reliable those can be...Levenson enquiry anyone?

Caroline

It would be a little odd to bury him at sea now: he was apparently motivated not by a love of the ocean but by a desire to keep his corpse out of Hunter's clutches. That was likely to be linked to contemporary fears that dissection would make satisfactory resurrection impossible. Throwing Byrne's skeleton into the sea over two centuries after his worst fears were realised seems to be missing the point.