Sunday, November 11, 2007

Perspectives on Death

Before arriving in Guatemala, I made the transition from the world of human rights advocacy to that of forensic science. Although I majored in anthropology during my time at Haverford College (graduating in 2004), the subfield of forensic anthropology is not often taught at the undergraduate level. Over the past year I have gained more experience in the field through coursework and an internship with Dr. Douglas Ubelaker at the Smithsonian Institution, and a month of training at Mercyhurst College. Prior to that, I spent two and half years working in human rights advocacy at the Latin America Working Group. The move from that field to forensics was marked largely by the difference I saw in perspectives on death.

People in the human rights field tend to be highly sensitive to death. Successful human rights advocacy involves drawing attention to wrongful death and gross mistreatment of individuals, and is often accomplished by conveying an appalled reaction to such acts. In most senses, this response is appropriate; what is more serious than death?

Yet in the forensic field, death is a given. Every case that a forensic specialist takes on involves a person that has died. Dark senses of humor abound in this profession, and initially during my transition I was surprised by the lack of emotional response conveyed by forensic anthropologists when in the face of traumatic death. But I am coming to understand the medical and scientific lens that one must look through in order to successfully complete forensic work, which is important on both a personal and professional level. A sense of humor helps too, even if a dark one!

Despite their differences, both human rights advocates and forensic professionals have the common goal of obtaining justice and dignity for the deceased, who can no longer speak for themselves. It is difficult for me, however, to have to choose between these two fields. Having now completed three weeks with the FAFG in Guatemala, I couldn’t be happier to be part of an organization whose work is both scientific in nature and dedicated to human rights and justice. The case that I am currently working on, for example, involves the skeletal analysis of 74 people who were killed on a Guatemalan military base during the time of the war. In my next entry I will discuss the (sometimes gory!) details of this project.


Johanna said...

Hey Jen - So good to read your posts each week. You and Kathy are amazing with keeping in touch, even when so far away. And I'm learning so many new things. Thanks!!! :)

Kristina said...

Hey Jen! Sounds interesting. I'm glad you're doing it. Can't wait to hear more. Take care.

Rebecca said...

hey jen! look forward to hearing more. congrats on the amazing opportunity!

Reza said...

Dear Jen,
Great to be updated this way, I really do envy you. Take good care of yourself over there, for we both know what crazy people can do.
Love Reza