Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

Excavating human remains is something of a rite of passage for young archaeologists. For starters, you have to demonstrate both a good working knowledge of the human skeleton, as well as immense flexibility and patience in the excruciatingly slow process of unearthing it. Done well, archaeologists can estimate age, biological sex, detect injuries, illnesses, what they could have eaten, if women had possibly given birth, even what their possible physical habits had been. We can further know how a person had been interred: if were they wrapped tightly in a shroud, placed in a coffin or box-like container the way we are accustomed to nowadays, or if the body had been transferred around after death. Careful excavations can reveal delicate pieces of jewelry, or fragments of clothing, or grave goods left by bereaved loved ones. Burial structures like headstones tell us how they would have wanted to be remembered, or what religious beliefs they had. When you are excavating more than one individual, you can try to observe how they may have been related, and what their community may have been like.

This is a task not to be taken lightly, because our intrusion into the repose of the dead can only be validated if it is used to give current generations a fuller understanding of our past, leading to an appreciation of why we are what we are in the present. It is a way of paying respectful tribute to these people whose death tells us so much about the ways that we live.

It is because of these sensibilities I have imbibed that reading about the cases of Emerito Pinza, Romy Candor, and Jay-ar Mercado has left me reeling. Not only did I feel a moral, personal outrage at what happened to them at death and after, but as an anthropologist and archaeologist, I felt punched in the gut.

Just when you think that things couldn’t get worse, we hear of new ways state-sponsored terror is foisted upon the people. Independent news outfits and human rights organizations report (see here, here, and here) that all three had been buried without any proper prior notification at all to the next of kin. Moreover, Pinza and Candor had been buried under different names, and Mercado, despite being in a coffin, had simply been put in a shallow grave in swampy ground with nothing on the surface to mark where he was.

Those who had been pointed as having done this – local military and police commands – all explain this away by claiming that the three were “rebels,” insinuating that they deserved the contemptible treatment of their bodies. They also belied the claims of the next of kin that the dead were innocent. But as far as accusations of dishonesty are concerned, the bereaved families and co-workers have been consistent with their claims, while it is state actors who have been variable.

To wit, on 31 January, Calabarzon police chief Vicente Danao, Jr. told state media that two “rebels” who “were both indigenous people” had been killed in Kalayaan, and that “tribe members” had claimed the bodies, which were decently buried with help from local law enforcement. But later, Major General Antonio Parlade Jr. of the Army’s Southern Luzon Command said, also on state media, that no one had claimed the bodies even “after four days,” and so they had to be buried.

Those two persons were Pinza and Candor, who had been interred under the erroneous names Leo San Jose de la Cruz and Bipar, respectively. This is on top of the other unreasonable difficulties faced by the next of kin in trying to reclaim their relatives’ bodies such as surveillance and bureaucratic hurdles. The bereaved and their supporters are calling this a new “modus operandi” in the state’s effort to cover up or distract from their policy of extra-judicial killings.

Manipulating death, ways of dying, and dead bodies themselves has always been part of the playbook of the powers that be; social scientists have coined the concepts of “necropower” and “necropolitics” to help us understand this phenomenon in contemporary times. More specifically, the deliberate confusing of human remains – be it through mass burial, unmarked and anonymous burials, and the prevention of conferring a dignified burial – is part of what anthropologists Francisco Ferrandiz and Antonius Robben in their book Necropolitics: Mass Graves and Exuhmations in the Age of Human Rights call the “technology of terror” that is often unleashed in recent times to “consolidate regimes of fear that might last for decades.”

In this book that contains case studies from all over the world, we see how denying access, burial, and proper identification of the dead is a disruption of our personal and social lives. Not only does it prevent psychological closure at the level of affected individuals, but it also serves as a constant reminder of who among us, quite literally and often tyrannically, has power over life and death. Exhumations and forensic investigations thus play important roles in delivering justice and restoring the basic humanitarian right of burying our dead the way we see fit.

What sets these recent Philippine cases apart, however, is that unlike other documented examples wherein via surreptitious burial victims’ identities were deliberately only removed, here the perpetrators actually attribute to them wholly new, fraudulent ones. At least anonymous bodies are, in a manner of speaking, the “uninscribed” dead upon which forensics and other tools of social justice can directly operate to give them their rightful names and identities. But these fake names is one additional, agonizing step relatives must contend with in this atrocious tug-of-war with the state with regard to the memories of their loved ones. It is also symptomatic of how fascist regimes thrive on lies upon lies, from fake news to historical revisionisms.

When we think of death and what comes after, we often only think about how we grieve and seek closure, of how our loved ones are in a better place, of finding solace in beliefs. But death is also highly political, and for victims of state violence these personal processes become entangled with social processes of pursuing justice, contesting “official” narratives, and going against the full weight of governmental powers that can still control us long after we have left this world.

One last thing a young archaeologist learns when confronted with a burial is that the dead do not bury themselves. How they are treated, therefore, is ultimately less a reflection of the person who died, and more a reflection of the living who buried them. And oh, what tales can these dead men tell of those who tried to do so. (

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