Battle in Print: Forensic Interventions into Mourning: Remembering the Unnamed Dead

Sarah Dauncey, 23 October 2008

Unlike many other scientific disciplines, forensic science occupies a prominent place in popular culture, following the success of CSI and its spin offs, and novels by authors like Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs. These fictive explorations of the field strengthen its cultural authority, and play a vital part in educating publics, however inadequately. In fact, they have given rise to a condition known as the ‘CSI Effect’. The concept refers to the raised expectations of forensic science in national and international legal situations, meaning increased status is accorded to evidence in trials and the authority of forensic scientists.

It is in the context of widespread interest in this specialised field - and the proliferation of ‘amateur experts’ - that it’s interesting to think about two recent high profile forensic investigations in the US: the exhumation of human remains from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in Arlington National Cemetery, and the search for human remains at Ground Zero following the bombing of the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001. By doing so, it’s possible to question some of the assumptions underlying forensic interventions into mourning and open a space to look at the field’s cultural authority. More specifically, I want to look at the political and cultural effects of a forensic focus on identifying the dead. The development and refinement of DNA and fingerprinting technologies makes identification possible from the tiniest trace of human life. The existence of such sophisticated technologies, coupled with public hope in scientists’ ability to extract meaning from carnage, contributes to the prioritisation of the recovery and naming of body parts.

It’s true that forensic experts assist acts of private mourning by returning bodies for traditional funeral rites, but when thinking about national mourning, this insistence on identification raises important questions (1). When we emphasise the recovery and naming of bodies, what becomes of the unnamed dead? Who takes responsibility for those whose remains will not only never be recovered and identified but will never be missed? Does the emphasis placed upon ‘our’ dead by forensic science dilute or obstruct sympathy for the death of ‘others’? As David Simpson says in his influential book,‘the matter of identification’ of the dead ‘is one of serious philosophical concern when their fate is written up in the interests of local and national politics with global repercussions’ (2006).

Naming the Unknown Soldier

The Tomb of the Unnamed Dead is a memorial for soldiers who fought and died for American liberty. It houses the unidentified remains of soldiers from the two World Wars and the Korean War and, up until 1998, held the remains of a victim of the Vietnam War. The dedication on the tomb is notable for inviting American citizens to unite in remembrance of the nameless dead who lost their lives during military campaigns to protect their way of life. The unidentified remains provide a symbol for the countless soldiers who were obliterated in modern technological warfare. They haunt, and might be said to animate, national mourning precisely because they resist ‘our knowledge and our narratives’, making it interminable (Naas). These fragments of the body are empowered by their very namelessness to encourage sympathetic engagement (albeit with American soldiers rather than ‘foreign’ ones) and ethical responsibility (2), but this power has been weakened over recent years as a result of the development of DNA testing. While advances in the technology of warfare mean that soldiers’ bodies are increasingly mutilated, making their remains hard to find, scientists have become more adept at retrieving and identifying human traces, and the irony of this has not gone by unnoticed by those who challenge the authorities’ exploitation of the dead, like Michael Naas and David Simpson.

The remains of the unidentified soldier, designated X-26,  who fought in the Vietnam War, were entombed in the national memorial in 1984. Nevertheless, information regarding where the body parts were found meant that speculation existed about the soldier’s identity until, Naas writes,

‘the moment when God’s knowledge became ours, when these remains were overtaken in their eternal repose by the powerful technologies of identification that emerged at the end of the last century and that are in the process of transforming just about everything having to do with our human condition, including the meaning of life and death and the possibilities for mourning, in this new century and the millennium’ (2003: 91).

The development of DNA testing in the 1990s presaged an end to uncertainty for the presumed relatives of the dead soldier. The Blassie family from St Louis requested the exhumation of the remains in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1998. They had harboured suspicions the body might be that of their relative, Michael Joseph Blassie, and must have held faith in the power of forensic technologies to respond to their need for truth. And, indeed, in this case DNA testing proved successful: the remains were discovered to be those of Michael Blassie and they were returned to the family for burial in St Louis.

This episode is historic on two accounts. Firstly, it reveals the extent of the public’s awareness of the value of sophisticated identification techniques that might server their interests, alleviate grief and bring about closure, which comes in part from the prominence of forensic science in the media and popular culture. Secondly, it signals the age of unnamed remains is over. After the exhumation of the representative of the Vietnam War, the Secretary of Defence, William Cohen, declared: ‘It may be that forensic science has reached the point where there will be no other unknowns in any war’ (Blassie). It’s unlikely soldiers will be entombed in national memorials, since there will always be a shadow of the possibility of their future identification. Michael Naas helpfully discloses the detrimental effects of technological change for collective mourning, yet he holds back from scrutinising the mechanisms enabling it. By neglecting to examine the material interests attached to forensic science, he upholds the dubious and commonly held view that scientific innovation has a momentum of its own that cannot be checked. Claude Alvares wisely notes that it is easy to oppose religious or cultural attitudes but hard to be taken seriously when querying the value of science (1988: 77). Critique must, therefore, risk censure in the process of watching over the operations of forensic science to ensure that the dead are not co-opted for national agendas.

Stockpiling Human Remains

Following the attacks on the World Trade Center, the state devoted massive resources to forensic investigators to enable them to search the site for human remains, identify them, and return them to their relatives. As with the case of the Blassie family, the victims’ relatives placed their hope in forensic science and its capacity to locate and identify the dead. Their knowledge of forensic techniques strengthened their appeals for resources and expertise to assist them in their grief by retrieving remains for burial. The state’s commitment to the forensic enquiry provided an over demonstration of its dedication to the families who commanded public sympathy in the wake of the atrocity. It was able to appear active in making amends, trying to retrieve something meaningful and identifiable from the wreckage of an event that defied (and continues to defy) comprehension.

To date, the New York Medical Examiner’s office has identified the remains of 1,585 of the 2,749 victims who died (BBC). They suspended their efforts in 2005 after four years of painstaking investigation and analysis. On the one hand, this statistic marks the triumph of forensic science, exhibiting its capacity to extract meaning from carnage and help grieving families to come to terms with their loss. But, on the other hand, it reminds us of the remains yet to be identified, forcing a confrontation with the full horror of twenty-first century violence, and its assault on human traditions of grieving, and to question the obsessive focus upon identifying body parts.

Interestingly, the unidentified remains will be housed in a memorial at Ground Zero, but not simply to give force to the urgency of remembering the dead and our ties to one another in and through loss. Rather, they reside there in the fervent hope that the science of the future will provide the answers unavailable in the present:

‘12,000 body parts with their DNA too badly damaged for current tests will be preserved inside the memorial in vacuum-packed, freeze-dried form, awaiting possible identification by a technology we do not yet have. In the shadow of the Freedom Tower there will thus subsist a prospect of funeral futures that testifies either to the depth of our attachment to being able to mourn some physical remains, however small, or to an image of utopian hyperessentialism on the part of those planning the commemoration’ (Simpson: 74).

By freeze-drying remains and placing them within the realms of scientific empiricism, they are withheld from making any ethical claims upon us. This particular expression of ‘hyperessentialism’ is both a product of forensic science’s cultural authority and a sign of its captivation of the popular imagination. Moreover, such a public and political veneration of forensic procedures betrays a remarkable reluctance to countenance the unidentifiable dead. It prompts us to ask: what is displaced by this insistence upon naming? What does this faith in the development of ever more sophisticated identification techniques tell us about the forms of our collective mourning? Undoubtedly, such a mode of forensically informed mourning contributes to a forgetting of the unnamed, unhistorical dead by placing the focus firmly upon ‘our’ own, all that we know—or will come to know (3).It thus detracts from the importance of reaching outwards in grief and making connections with others who have lost and suffered as a result of political campaigns (such as with Iraqi citizens and soldiers).

Teresa Margolles and the Aesthetic Transformation of Human Remains

In closing, I want to turn briefly to an alternative and more radical way of marshalling forensic methods to remember the dead. The Mexican artist Teresa Margolles draws on forensic techniques precisely as they aid the process of honouring those who have never been identified and never will, those who not only died as a result of injustice but who continue to meet injustice in their posthumous treatment. ‘With death, the body continues into another phase that is contingent upon the social, political and economic context of life pre-death’ (Scott Bray: 13). By virtue of her aesthetic recasting of forensic methods she highlights the unevenness of access to forensic expertise and resources. It is critical that we keep in mind the number of deaths resulting from acts of violence, whether it is named political warfare, terrorism, or domestic crime, that are never investigated. High profile forensic investigations, like the one at Ground Zero, foreground certain bodies and divert attention away from others. (This displacement is intensified when remains are ‘stockpiled’ in the hope of more advanced forensic methods in the future.)

Margolles’ artistic practice calls for us to remember the unnamed dead, those who died in horrific circumstances and were subsequently failed by the justice system. For example, her installation of 500 unmarked graves in Mexico provides a powerful way of remembering the women whose violent deaths were never investigated by the police. By creating headstones without graves she announces the possibility, and urgency, of commemorating death without human remains. Her memorial is empowered by the absence of bodies or body parts: it invokes sympathetic understanding and demands the recognition of judicial and political failure beyond Mexican borders. According to the critic Rebecca Scott Bray, Margolles’s tombstones are ‘works of mourning that can be displayed internationally. (…) Lacking names, epitaphs, they are sadder and more articulate than any other grave space’ (2007: 37). Margolles’s aesthetic yields a bold and expansive form of remembrance which can be thought in terms of a ‘forensic compassion’ (44). This imaginative, sympathetic, and open-ended encounter with the dead gives rise to an emancipatory political hope and the chance of a more just future order.

The potential for forensics to be harnessed for oppositional purposes renders the task of critiquing its application by the authorities all the more urgent. It is only by shifting attention away from ‘our’ remains and the insistence upon identifying them that it becomes possible to create sufficient space to remember the unnamed, unhistorical dead and thus pave the way for an altogether different hope.


Sarah Dauncey received her PhD in English Literature from the University of Warwick and is currently an independent scholar. She has published in various journals and has work forthcoming in The Blackwell Companion to Crime. She is writing a monograph called These Bones Can Talk: Twentieth-Century Forensic Narratives and co-editing a collection of essays with Tiffany Jenkins entitled Corpse Life: The Contemporary Fascination with Human Remains. In particular, she is interested in the way that forensic science contributes to narratives of the past and exposes the claims of the dead.


1) Robert Pogue Harrison writes forcefully of the universality of the human need to bury the dead (2003: xi).
2) Judith Butler has also written of the way grieving opens a space for the political (2004: 19-49).
3) This reading is informed by Francis Barker’s powerful study of the conclusion of violence through a strategy of foregrounding the dead body in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (1993: 143-206)


Alvares, Claude (1988) ‘Science, Colonialism and Violence: A Luddite View’, in Science, Hegemony and Violence: A Requiem for Modernity, ed. by Ashis Nandy, Delhi: Oxford UP
Barker, Francis (1993) The Culture of Violence: Essays on Tragedy and History Manchester: Manchester UP
BBC News (2005) Forensic Team end 9/11 efforts, 23 February 2005
Blassie, Michael, Visible Proofs, forensic views of the body:
Butler, Judith (2004) Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence London: Verso
Naas, Michael (2003) ‘History’s Remains: Of Memory, Mourning, and the Event’, Research in Phenomenology 33 (75-96).
Pogue Harrison, Robert (2003) The Dominion of the Dead, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Scott Bray, Rebecca (2007) ‘En piel ajena: The Work of Teresa Margolles’, Law Text Culture, 11, 13-50
Simpson, David (2006) 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration (Chicago: Chicago University Press

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