Forensic Anthropology and Mass Disasters

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Valerie Wallach Mass Disaster Assignment Watching the mass disaster videos in class was both devastating and informative. Honestly, I had never really considered how anthropologists and other workers might handle the investigations of mass disaster sites, when hundreds of deaths occur as opposed to a single death. Clearly, they face a multitude of ethical issues and logistical challenges in repatriating a cemetery or mass grave. For now, I will focus on divulging the ethical problems. For the first case, a massive flood displaced nearly eight-hundred graves in Hardin, Missouri in 1993. Authorities found displaced human remains over twenty-six square miles of land; fifty people were killed; 55,000 homes were damaged or destroyed; 58,000 people were displaced. It was a truly atrocious, upsetting scenario in which the likelihood of finding bodies was very low, and the procedures were costly. The public expected a lot from the anthropologists, hoping that they would work quickly and be able to recover all of the bodies of their missing families and friends. (Shows like “CSI” and “FBI” may give people an unrealistic expectation of these sorts of jobs.) But above all, it became very difficult and depressing for the anthropologists to work with so many depressed, anxious residents in Hardin. Everyone had lost a great deal and tensions were high during this painstaking process. The public offered family photos, medical records, and other personal affects to help identify individuals, which sometimes did make an impact, but other times, family memories proved to be ambiguous or inaccurate. The practice of embalming was not used until after the Civil War, so many bodies in caskets were already decomposed. The casket models – including year and manufacturer – might point out subtle clues, or could lead you in the wrong direction considering that some people may have

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