Drowning the Dead
Alexa Hagerty. Anthropologist, Stanford University
I arrive in Buenos Aires in December. My fieldwork in Guatemala has ended and my fieldwork in Argentina has not yet begun. I am in between things. I’ve been working with a team of forensic anthropologists exhuming mass graves and piecing together bones, laboring to identify victims of Guatemala’s recent history of political violence. After months of intimate proximity to death and terror, it is strange to arrive in the sunny cheer of Buenos Aires.
It is high summer in Argentina, vacation time. I’m disoriented by the (to me) upside-down seasons of the Southern Hemisphere. I’m startled to find myself meandering Palermo Soho where tourists drink café cortados at sidewalk cafes. In leafy Parque Centenario people practice yoga, simultaneously folding themselves into downward dog. I am a world away from Guatemala City with its barred windows and cautious streets. It is hard to believe that a few weeks ago I was standing in the mud of an excavation site in the remote province of Quiché, excavating bones.
In Guatemala, I was always with other people. We dug together and ate lunch together. We shared rooms, clothes, mosquito spray, water bottles, and colds. In Argentina, I am alone. My newly-rented studio apartment is clinically bare and white: white tiled floor, white walls, white curtains. In the bright summer light, I feel like I live inside an eggshell.
When do I realize I am not well? When I hear people laughing as they pass on the street and rush to close the curtains so they won’t glimpse me? When I skip dinner and sit hungry on the edge of my bed rather than go outside? Odd things enter my mind: a woodcut print I once saw of children in a garden. Above them, puffy summer clouds. Below them, roots of trees and plants sinking into the earth – and tangled among the roots, skeletons.
I constantly think of the three men, how their bones crisscrossed in the dirt. Why this exhumation and not one of the others? I don’t know, but this particular mass grave in the hills of El Quiché is always there, like a radio playing in the background. The strata of copper-tinged soil. The women from the community, arms folded, waiting at the edge of the excavation. The sound of the river and the pick axes.
There are hundreds of mass graves in Guatemala. During the armed conflict that took place from 1960 to 1996, the Guatemalan military, supported by the United States government, targeted Maya farming communities for their supposed sympathy with leftist guerilla groups. Entire villages were massacred. The United Nations estimates that 83 percent of the victims of the armed conflict were indigenous Maya-speaking Guatemalans. The scale of the violence is staggering: in a country with a population of 8 million people, there were 200,000 dead and 45,000 disappeared. Quiché was at the epicenter of the bloodshed: locally, the conflict is known simply as La Violencia—the violence.
Standing in the exhumation site, we dig to find the buried bones. We uncover three male skeletons. Tidy bullet holes, entry and exit, mark two of the crania; the third is completely shattered. As we clean away the dirt, Maxi tells us to look for machete marks, which appear as lines etched across the bone. In other mass graves, on other skeletons, we have found the tell-tale hatching on skulls, scapula, tibia (with a severed Achilles tendon, people can’t run away). This is the kind of forensic detail we are being trained to spot and document. It can be used as evidence to prove torture and murder, to build a case for genocide in a trial. If there ever is a trial.
One hot summer afternoon in Buenos Aires, someone knocks on the white door of my white apartment. I don’t want to open it, but I’m playing music and any evasion will be obvious through the thin walls. A woman smiles in the doorway. She lives upstairs. She is from Colombia, here to study dentistry. She tells me Colombian students rent half the apartments in the building. The long civil war has displaced Colombians and the university system in Argentina is inexpensive and very good. She has come to invite me to a barbecue. “You can’t spend Christmas alone!” She smiles. There is a smudge of lipstick on her perfect white teeth.
Toothbrushes, brooms, dustpans, pink and green plastic buckets. Maxi stopped at the Walmart outside of Guatemala City to buy supplies. The tools for exhuming mass graves are ordinary. We work for hours cleaning dirt off the three bodies, careful not to displace their position in the grave. It is not the bones I find most disturbing. It is not the skulls with their expression of grinning or screaming. It is not even the cord still tied around the intricate carpal bones of one man’s wrists. It is the boots. All the local men wear these exact boots. When I look up from my work, I see these very boots gathered around the grave, worn by the men watching us, the men hoping to find their missing father, brother, son. After work, I scrape the mud from my shoes, using a stick to clean the tread, just as I use a stick to clean the mud from the soles of the dead men’s boots.
The dead men are dressed in typical work clothes. As I brush the dirt off a plaid shirt, I can feel the sharp ribs beneath the fabric. I notice the even stitching of the homemade shirt. The fabric is intact and retains its colors. Some of the thread along the sleeve has rotted away (cotton degrades faster than nylon), leaving the fabric in pattern pieces. I imagine the wives and mothers who cut the cloth and stitched it together.
Maxi tells me that when the bodies of women are found wearing traje (traditional dress), women from the community ask for photographs of their huipil, their handwoven blouses, and sometimes climb into the grave to inspect the stitching. The design of a huipil is unique and can give a clue to the identity of a skeleton. If a woman finds the body of her mother, she may have the same huipil made for herself and her daughters.
Recognition by huipil is not scientific identification. Bodies are also sometimes found with jewelry, visible tattoos and even legible identification documents. Such evidence is noted and forms part of a forensic profile. It can help establish identity, dependent on the findings of a forensic exam, and ideally, a DNA match. But identity documents can end up with someone other than their original owner. People have similar tattoos. Jewelry gets stolen. Clothes get switched.
Families and community members may find clothing more convincing than a forensic identification or even a DNA match. It can be hard to imagine a skeleton – or often just a fragment of bone – as a son or mother. A watch, a tattoo, a driver’s license – any of these may be more hospitable to the imaginative work entailed in accepting human remains as a missing loved one[i]. Families and forensic teams sometimes measure evidence by different standards and find certainty in different forms of proof.
In Guatemala, these different ways of knowing converge on dreams. In the Maya cosmovision, the dead play an active role in the lives of the living. Dreams are one of the principal channels of communication, a means by which ancestors offer counsel and give warning. From a young age, children are encouraged to remember and tell their dreams[ii]. In the context of exhumations, community members report dreams in which the dead indicate where their body is located so that it can be found and given a proper burial. Without funeral rites, the dead are not at peace and cannot fulfill their communal role[iii]. Exhumation helps restore the correct relationship between the living and the dead.
Community members locate bodies through dreams, but the forensic team chooses where to excavate based on archeological evidence. They look for subtle changes in the topography that may indicate a sunken area. They excavate exploratory trenches searching for signs that the dirt is revuelto, the layers mixed together, which is an indication that it has been previous disturbed.
I want to know how these competing methods of locating bodies affect the relationship between teams and communities. I ask Zulma, who is the director of an organization that provides practical and psychological support to communities during the process of exhumation. Zulma is a social worker who grew up in Quiché, wears the traje of her village, and speaks Ixil and Spanish. She acts as an interpreter, not only linguistically, but socially, between the local communities, the forensic team, and other NGOs and government actors. She tells me that for Maya communities DNA is important and dreams are too. When I ask if she feels like the forensic teams takes the dreams reported to them seriously, she pauses and says, “Well, we have to be patient with the scientists. They have a different way of seeing the world.” She adds, “more than anything, they are interested in the color of soil, but we are interested in dreams.”
I ask Alvaro, a ladino forensic archeologist, what role dreams play in the team’s work. He says that just a week before, a woman approached him to relate a dream indicating that her father was buried under a big pine tree at the current site. I ask if the team will search there. He says, “We have to respect the way they see the world.” Then he sighs and says, “but there are a lot of pine trees!”
The site being excavated sits at the edge of a forest. We are digging by a large pine tree, whose thick roots make the shoveling hard going. It is already late in the day when we find the first bone. The air is heavy with approaching rain. As Alvaro scrapes away the earth from the femur, local men prepare a tarp to protect the site from the impending storm. In a flash of a machete blade they chop branches from trees, cutting supports and stakes cleverly notched to fit together. Maxi once said that one of the tragedies of La Violencia was that it disgraced the machete. It brought shame to a noble instrument that harvests maize and builds houses. So much death dealt by machetes, so many massacres. A tool of life made a weapon of death. The men at the site wield machetes with grace and magic, making tents over the open pits in minutes.
The rain begins to pour down, but the team keeps working under the tarp, fueled by a buzz of excitement that we have found a grave. Within an hour, the distinct forms of three bodies are visible. They are skeletonized, meaning that all the flesh has decomposed and that only bone is left. There seem to be more bodies farther beneath. Alvaro guesses seven in total.
On the ride back to town, as the truck inches through the downpour, Maxi and Alvaro tell a story. During an exhumation in another community, a hard rain began to fall. The excavated pit with its half-exposed bodies quickly filled with water. Community members jumped in to save the people buried there from drowning. The punchline of this story is, of course, that dead bodies can’t drown.
A story about drowning the dead marks a boundary between the team and the families. It separates a biomedical conception of the corpse from an understanding of the dead as still in some sense vital. It divides science from the sacred. Such a boundary might seem unassailable, but the longer my fieldwork goes on, the less sure I am about the stability of such divisions. I begin to think that the boundary between scientific and non-scientific world-views is more like a porous membrane than a cement wall.
Take dreams. Like community members, forensic team members also dream of the dead. Alvaro says, “This work gives us all bad dreams. Repetitive dreams. After three-months straight [at an exhumation site] the team is haunted. We have to distance ourselves—not dehumanize, but distance.”
“Can you do that?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says, ending the conversation.
Maxi contradicts this account. “No one dreams. You stop dreaming after the first few months.” He tells me he hasn’t had a dream in years. Whether dreams effloresce or wither – they seem to mark dangerous territory.
A joke that circulates on the forensic teams I got to know during my fieldwork goes something like: my therapist is Doctor Jameson, referring to a bottle of whiskey. A few nights of drinking punctuate the exhumation. Gallo beer and Quetzalteca liquor (no one can actually afford Jameson) loosens tongues. Gossip flows and friends are teased. Bawdy suggestions are made. Sometimes, things take a dark turn and horrific anecdotes as only a forensic team could tell them are recounted. For all the free talk, I never hear anyone mention of personal fear or upset or nightmares.
Archeologist Zoe Crossland suggests that forensic anthropologists may find an outlet in fiction and memoir to narrate experiences that would be taboo in other writing genres and professional settings[iv]. This seems to hold true for accounts of dreams. Evaded in interviews and invisible in the clinic of “Doctor Jameson,” accounts of dreams flourish in forensic memoir. Writing about her experiences working on exhumations in Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo, forensic anthropologist Clea Koff relates dreaming of “dismembered legs in the bed with me and trowels scraping through saponified flesh”[v]. Courtney Brkic, in her memoir about exhumations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, writes about dreams of swimming in pools filled with severed torsos and digging up her brother’s body and her own arm[vi].
It is not just dreams that unsettle the boundary between science and something else. It is also the potential liveliness of bones. In a lab, I see a forensic anthropologist stroke the forehead of a skull with tender touch and say, “poor guy,” as she records the trauma she reads in his bones. I notice a team member cringe when hammering a segment of femur to prepare a DNA sample. When I ask her about it, she says, “I hate doing it. It feels wrong. After everything they’ve been through.” A member of the Argentine forensic team remarks that she abhors the part of the lab protocol that requires her to place skulls in plastic bags. “It’s stupid but I feel like they’re suffocating.”[vii]
These are not strictly scientific reactions. The worry of suffocation is not so different than the worry of drowning. Tender touch, a visceral reluctance to break a bone or place a skull in a plastic bag imply a certain continued vitality to bones and a vulnerable personhood that persists in the dead. As Katharine Young has remarked about prohibitions against dark humor during autopsies, you can only offend a subject, not an object[viii]. So, too, it is subjects not objects who can be injured and cared for.
Perhaps “care” is the boundary that matters. It is not a boundary that divides scientific and non-scientific or families and forensic teams, it is one that encloses them in the same field[ix]. The field of care includes cleaning bones and examining the stitching of a huipil. It encompasses both dreams and DNA. As archeologist Rosemary Joyce and others have pointed out, forensic anthropologists are among the few groups of people socially sanctioned to care for dead bodies[x]. Families and forensic teams share the duty of caring for the dead. It is the job of the living to save the dead from drowning.
The ghosts arrive on a bright hot afternoon. I am in my white apartment, sitting cross-legged on my white bed, listening to a guided meditation on YouTube. I am trying to feel better. I breathe in and out. Bullet holes in skulls. I breathe in and out. Hatch marks of machete on bone. A fractured pelvis. The dead. The mass graves. The masses and masses of mass graves pockmarking the globe. Terrible things have happened and terrible things are happening now. The entire world is slick and sticky with blood. Breathe in and out. I turn off my YouTube meditation and decide to take a shower to wash away my thoughts. But things only get worse under the water. I am drowning in images of horror.
Toweling dry my hair, I walk back into the white room. They are standing there, milling in front of the kitchen sink. They are lively flesh, not skeletons, and there are no marks of violence on them. There are three of them. But one is a woman. The men wear their work clothes and rubber boots, but she wears her traje; her simple huipil is white, with just a little embroidery. I wonder how we missed that one of the bodies was female. She must have been dressed in men’s clothes, she must have been the body below the other two, the one that we did not reveal fully before I left the site. They look tired from traveling so far and they are dirty from the grave. Their posture is tentative, almost apologetic and I realize it is because they feel badly about the muddy footprints they have tracked on the white floor. One of the men speaks to me briefly and kindly. Then they are gone. It has been a split second. I stand in the white room alone, naked.
That evening, I clean my apartment. I wash the white tile floors. Ringing out the mop, I am confused for a moment that the water runs clear. It should be muddy from the boot tracks of the visitors from Guatemala.
The visitation was most comparable to a dream. While it unfolded, I was immersed in it and it was real. When it was over, it vanished. It was not unreal, it simply belonged to another category of existence, as waking and sleeping are different states of being.
In one state of being, I worked with a forensic team to care for the dead. In another state of being, the dead appeared to care for me. Only the first state sustains analysis, supports articles, offers itself to academia. The other is a shadow. I never told anyone about the ghosts until now. Nor did I try to make sense of them. They appeared. They vanished. I was neither healed nor harmed. I continued to be haunted by what I had seen in the graves, and I felt unwell for a long time after. Yet, I was comforted by their visit.
A few days after the ghosts appeared, I wrote to Maxi to ask about the grave in the hills of Quiché. He wrote back to say it was bigger than they thought. They discovered more bodies underneath, as expected, but also slightly to the south, under the pine tree – sixteen so far. He doesn’t mention if there were any women, and I don’t write back to ask.
[i] For more on the complications of associating bone fragments with missing people, see: Renshaw (2016) and Wagner (2008)
[ii] For more on dreams in Maya society, see: Pérez-Sales and Navarro Garcia (2007), Tedlock (1981), Molesky-Poz (2009). For children’s dream training, see: Tedlock, 1981: 324
[iii] The importance of dreams as a form of communication from the dead in the context of exhumation in Guatemala has been noted, but not deeply ethnographically explored, see: Pérez-Sales and Navarro-Garcia (2007). For a well-documented discussion of communication between living and dead in the context of exhumation in Timor-Leste, see: Kinsella and Blau (2013)
[iv] In Crossland and Joyce, eds. (2015)
[v] Koff (2007:52)
[vi] Brkic (2005:254, 270, 290)
[vii] Guerriero (2010)
[viii] Young (1993)
[ix] For a thoughtful consideration on “care” as a theoretical lens for exhumation, see Rosenblatt (2015)
[x] In Crossland and Joyce, eds. (2015)
Brkic, Courtney Angela. The stone fields: An epitaph for the living. Granta Books, 2005.
Crossland, Zoë and Joyce, Rosemary A., eds. Disturbing Bodies: Perspectives on Forensic Anthropology. School for Advanced Research Press, 2015.
Guerriero, Leila. “El rastro de los huesos.” Mejor que ficción. Crónicas ejemplares (2010): 61-83.
Kinsella, Naomi, and Blau, Soren. “Searching for conflict related missing persons in Timor-Leste: Technical, political and cultural considerations.” Stability: International Journal of Security and Development 2.1, 2013.
Koff, Clea. The Bone Woman: A Forensic Anthropologist’s Search for Truth in the Mass Graves of Rwanda, Bosni a, Croatia, and Kosovo. Random House, 2007.
Molesky-Poz, Jean. Contemporary Maya spirituality: The ancient ways are not lost. University of Texas Press, 2009.
Pérez-Sales, Pau and Navarro García, Susana, Resistencias contra el olvido: Trabajo psicosocial en procesos de exhumaciones. Gedisa, 2007
Renshaw, Layla. Exhuming loss: Memory, materiality and mass graves of the Spanish Civil War. Routledge, 2016.
Rosenblatt, Adam. Digging for the disappeared: forensic science after atrocity. Stanford University Press, 2015.
Tedlock, Barbara. “Quiché Maya dream interpretation.” Ethos 9.4 (1981): 313-330.
Wagner, Sarah. To know where he lies: DNA technology and the search for Srebrenica’s missing. Univ of California Press, 2008.
Young, Katharine. Still life with corpse: Management of the grotesque body in medicine. In Bodylore. University of Tennessee Press, 1993.