PRIVACY AND DEATH: Past and Present


Centre for Privacy Studies, University of Copenhagen

It is often said in archaeology that the dead do not bury themselves. Instead, death and funerary rituals are constructed by living communities who have different relationships to death, dying, and commemoration and differing notions of privacy. How we interact with these topics is evolving as digital methods present new ethical and practical challenges. This symposium will explore the relationships we construct between death and privacy in the past and in the present by answering the following questions: (1) How far have the dead been entitled to privacy? (2) What kinds of privacy do the dead have? (3) Does privacy change when one dies? (4) How can we approach privacy and death in an ethical manner?





Day 1: Thursday 12 October 2023

8.30am       Tea and coffee

09.00am     Opening Remarks by Dr. Natacha Klein Käfer and Dr. Felicia Fricke

09.15am     Opening Keynote – Dr. Edina Harbinja

10.15am     Break

10.30am     Session 1: Modern Engagement with the Dead

12.30pm     Lunch

01.00pm     Session 2: Museums, Collections, and Display

02.00pm     Break

02.15pm     Session 3: Colonialism and the Dead

03.45pm     Thank You and Housekeeping

04.00pm     Wine Reception at the Centre for Privacy Studies

05.00pm     End of Day 1


Day 2: Friday 13 October 2023

08.30am      Tea and coffee

09.00am      Opening Remarks by Dr. Natacha Klein Kafer and Dr. Felicia Fricke

09.15am      Session 4: Privacy and Post-Conflict Remains

10.45am      Break

11.00am      Session 5: Privacy and Grief

12.30pm      Lunch

01.00pm      Session 6: History of Privacy and Death

03.00pm      Break

03.15pm      Closing Keynote - Dr. Angela Stienne

04.15pm      Closing Remarks by Dr. Natacha Klein Käfer and Dr. Felicia Fricke

04.30pm      End of Day 2



“An Uneasy Relationship Between Post-mortem Privacy and the Law”

Dr. Edina Harbinja (Aston University, Birmingham, UK)

In this talk, Dr. Harbinja examines the developments of the theoretical and legal conceptions of post-mortem privacy. In her earlier work, she examined the relationship between privacy, dignity and autonomy to identify theoretical grounding for post-mortem privacy as an extension of privacy and autonomy after death. In her later research, the author transforms post-mortem privacy into a new concept of postmortal privacy. This concept is based on philosophical conceptions of informational body, social theories of digital immortality and the technological development of AI. The concept offers a novel normative framework for developing policy and law to address the uneasy relationship between post-mortem privacy and the law.


Session 1: Modern Engagement with the Dead

“Dynamics of Privacy and Death in Nigeria”

Dr. Lucky Igohosa Ugbudian (Alex Ekwueme Federal University Ndufu-Alike, Ebonyi, Nigeria)

The privacy associated with death in precolonial and colonial Nigeria has been gradually tampered with in recent years. This paper intends to analyse why the shift occurred and its implications. While in precolonial and colonial Nigeria the burial of a person elicited tears, secrecy, fear, privacy, sober reflection, and a collective sense of loss, irrespective of social status and age, in recent years, some Nigerians have tended to have overworked these aspects. Elaborate burials and the use of digital media have led treasurer hunters to attack and vandalise graves in search of expensive items, denying the dead their well-deserved privacy and rest.


“Privacy and Death in the Urban Spaces of Izmir: Urban Interventions toward Cemeteries in the 19th and 20th Centuries”

Selvihan Kurt (İstanbul Technical University, Turkey)

The Ottoman port of Izmir was one of the cities that experienced urban expansion as a result of integrating into the world economy in the 18th and 19th centuries, requiring a better infrastructure and influenced by Enlightenment hygiene ideals. The cemeteries were targeted for construction during this expansion, and new intramural burials were prohibited as a way to prevent disease. During these projects, the cemeteries of Christians, Muslims, and Jews were targeted despite protests. This presentation focuses on how the sacredness and privacy of these cemeteries were approached during this period, examining how local actors such as governors and religious leaders were effective in violating privacy or negotiating it.


“Sacred Grounds and Material Realities: Addressing the Spiritual and Material Aspects of Human Remains in the Tian Shan Mountains”

Dr. Katarzyna Jarosz (University of Wrocław, Poland)

This presentation analyses the treatment of human remains of people (for example, tourists and mountaineers) who perished in the Tian Shan Mountains, firstly in the Soviet Union and subsequently in the new post-Soviet countries, by examining the intersection of human spirituality with the treatment of human bodies as waste. There are four important factors: the significance of mountaineering in the Soviet Union in the analysed period; the inefficient system of funeral services; the inefficient system of waste management in the region in question; and climate change, notably global warming and, consequently, the melting of the Tian Shan glaciers.


Session 2: Museums, Collections, and Display

“Human Remains and Privacy - A Contemporary Bias?”

Nicole Crescenzi (IMT School for Advanced Studies, Lucca, Italy)

Using examples coming from different sources and historic times, this study explores the ethics of excavating, studying, and displaying human remains, which in the past few years have become increasingly debated. It includes a large-scale survey that has been distributed to map public opinions on an international scale. The resulting answers underline the importance given, on the one hand, to “humanizing” the human remains by, for example, telling their story as living people. On the other hand, the idea of consent was often brought up, accompanied by that of respect for their wishes in life and of their privacy. But whose idea of privacy are we respecting? Are we being respectful towards the dead or towards the modern visitors?


“Privacy and Ethics in Anatomical Collections: A Case Study from Indonesia and the Netherlands”

Dr. Felicia Fricke (Saxo Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark)

This paper will present a case study recently detailed in the Dutch-language podcast Het Verloren Hoofd (2019). It follows the story an Indonesian freedom fighter named Demang Lehman. After he was captured and executed by the Dutch in the 1860s, Demang Lehman’s head was taken back to the Netherlands as part of a wider colonial practice of collecting human remains. But where is it now? In this story, both the denial of privacy and the insistence upon it have been used for unethical ends. It raises questions that are informative for the disciplines of medicine, forensics, and archaeology. Is privacy always ethical? And what does this mean for the curation and study of human remains?


“The New Frontiers of Postmortem Privacy: Negotiating the Research Ethics of Human Remains in the Era of the Third Science Revolution in Archaeology”

Professor Liv Nilsson Stutz and Dr. Rita Peyroteo Stjerna (Linnæus University, Sweden)

In the past 20 years, we have witnessed an impressive development in laboratory methods to investigate archaeological human remains – “the Third Science Revolution.” While this has fundamental implications for research, very little has been said about how it relates to concepts such as privacy, dignity, and ethics. A lot of the information now accessible addresses aspects of an individual’s life that could be considered private. This paper discusses several case studies that reveal the ethical challenges relating to potentially sensitive information, for example, the genomic analysis of Beethoven’s hair. If we are to harness the potential of new methods, we must also develop a professional ethics that acknowledges the complexity of human remains as objects of science and as lived lives.


Session 3: Colonialism and the Dead

“Colonising the Dead”

Trishala Worlikar (Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India)

Colonialism claimed ownership over not just the territory of India but also the bodies of its inhabitants, denying them privacy and dignity even in death. Two examples are cited. The first is the plague epidemic in Bombay in the late nineteenth century, when the colonial state introduced restrictions on funerals and burial practices. The second uses post mortem records from colonial prisons to show that large numbers of dissections were carried out in prisons by taking advantage of the unobstructed access that the colonial state had over the bodies of the prisoners. This research has implications for contemporary society, raising fundamental questions about the relationship between the state and the most private aspect of human life, the human body.

“The Afterlife of an “Emember” – Decoloniality and Privacy in Gergely Péterfy’s novel The Stuffed Barbarian”

Dr. Eszter Ureczky (University of Debrecen, Hungary)

Gergely Péterfy’s The Stuffed Barbarian (2014) is a postmodern Hungarian novel, a fictional biography of Angelo Soliman, an enslaved man who later achieved prominence in Viennese society. However, when he died, his body was taken to the Museum of Natural History in Vienna and exhibited there until the building burned down in 1848. This presentation will discuss what ethical behaviour posterity can offer to Soliman’s body once it had been irredeemably deprived of its privacy, using a medical humanities approach to explore historical and literary perspectives. By approaching the novel as an example of historiographic metafiction and introducing postcolonial theories of subjectivity, it can be read as a symbolic funeral or homage to Soliman’s body.


Session 4: Privacy and Post-Conflict Remains

“Churches and Latrines as Mass Graves: On the Loss of Privacy in the ‘Aftermath’ of Tutsicide in Rwanda”

Dr. Anne Peiter (Université de la Réunion, France)

Based on autobiographical testimonies of survivors of the Tutsicide in Rwanda, this presentation analyses the connection between loss of space, death, and privacy. The “genocide of proximity”, often set in motion by friends, acquaintances, and relatives, forced many to leave their homes or live in hiding. Privacy thus disappeared. Churches, once thought to be untouchable, became places of the most efficient mass killings, and those who were killed lay and began to decompose there – without Christian burial. In addition to churches and schools, latrines were also turned into “burial places”, and this meant that the dehumanization of the victims continued beyond death.


“Bones of Disintegration: Albanian-Greek Tensions over the WWII Dead”

Dr. Klejd Këlliçi (Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Tirana, Albania)

In 2006, authorities in the village of Kosinë, south-eastern Albania, launched an investigation, which found that more than 120 skeletons had been exhumed in the graveyard of the local church and illegally transferred to the crypt of a newly built monastery cemetery designed to host the remains of Greek WWII soldiers. At the time, Greece was pressuring Albania to provide a memorial graveyard and the incident became public, sparking a wave of indignation and public protest. This paper examines the political and social implications of the incident, concentrating on the instrumentalization of human remains for political gain and related anxieties of the living toward the dead.


“Death in Exile: Public Funerals for Private Royals Abroad”

Augusto Petter (European University Institute, Florence, Italy)

To die physically does not mean to die socially. This research looks at the discourses surrounding formerly public personae once expelled from their lands, with a focus on their funerary rituals and the necessities of public or private responses, condolences, and mourning – both by the state and by spontaneous community congregations. It compares Brazilian cases with other modern cases of monarchs who died in exile, such as Danieri Mwanga II of Buganda (1868-1903), Thibaw Min of Burma (1859-1916), Napoleon III of France (1808-1873), Salim bin Thuwaini of Oman (1839-1876), and Isabel II of Spain (1830-1904). This comparison unveils a new perspective on global aspects of monarchies facing the symbolic and political challenges of the 19th and 20th centuries and their respective political and social implications.


Session 5: Privacy and Grief

“The Mourn and Lament: Women Dwelling Between the Private Torment and the Social Expectations in Rural Albania”

Dr. Esmeralda Agolli (University of Tirana, Albania)

The death of a family member, partner or friend comprises quite a traumatic legacy with a definitive impact in the life of those left behind. Beyond the emotions and torment, in rural Albania, the passing is accompanied by a variety of rites, traditions, beliefs and expectations. This presentation, focusing on ethnographic evidence from rural Albania, deals with the extent to which women become the only bearers of honor, respect, and sorrow, leaving behind their private torment. While trying to fulfill these social expectations through dress codes, commemorations, and elongated lament, they are not given the chance to overcome their pain and sorrow. Instead, they become a living memory of their lost loved ones.


“The Dead of the Day: An Innkeeper’s Dead Children, Post-Death Practices in Germany around 1900 and Notions of Privacy”

Katerina Piro (University of Mannheim, Germany)

This paper examines the post-death practises of the general population that have so far been little studied, specifically notions of privacy surrounding death and funerary practices for children around 1900. Using an intersectional approach, focussing on class, gender and age, are notions of privacy and death different for children than for adults? It will examine privacy for the grieving family on the one hand, and for the dead individual on the other. It will ask if being forgotten is similar to having privacy? Or should it be considered another aspect of the public-private binary?

“Exposing Some Funerary Culture and Obnoxious Widowhood Practices against Nigerian Womenfolk: The Need for Cultural Review”

Egbule Philip Onyekachukwu (University of Delta, Agbor, Nigeria)

In recent times, the issue of traditional harmful practices and violence against women/girls has taken centre stage in Nigeria. These traditional harmful practices include obnoxious widowhood practices (rites) against Nigerian women. Widowhood practices are the rites performed for a woman after the death of her husband. Such practices have devastating physical, psychological, economic and intellectual consequences on women. They reinforce the “inferior” status of women in society and continue to violate their rights, and this has serious implications for the actualization of the gender equality agenda in society, as well as the economic development agenda. This paper examines this and proposes some ways forward, including the positive role of education and social media.


Session 6: History of Privacy and Death

“End-of-Life Rites in Ancient Art”

Dr. Vassilka Nikolova (Medical University - Sofia, Bulgaria)

Greek rituals have shaped modern European identity and traditions in many spheres of life. Gravestones and offerings are a vast resource for gaining knowledge not only about the burial rituals, but also about daily and private life in Greek society. Life was viewed as a preparation for the afterlife, and death was not to be feared. Philosophers regarded the body as an obstacle to the search for knowledge and meaning, and the pursuit of bodily pleasures was considered the root of all evil in society. These ideas laid the basis for European moral values. Embracing all these concepts, Greek burial rituals were mainly the duty of the family with distinct gender roles and phases.


“The Role of the Dead in the Political Culture of the Roman Republic”

Viktor Wretström (Lund University, Sweden)

This presentation will explore how death and funerals were used by the political elite during the Roman Republic as a public spectacle for the sake of increasing the bereaved party’s socio-political capital. It will explore how death, and the memory of a dead ancestor, could be, and was, used to better one’s chances in the aristocratic competition central to the political culture of the Roman Republic. Examining tombs, funerary inscriptions, funerary processions, death masks, and honorary games, this process will be exemplified by looking at several individuals that were either furthered or hampered by the careers and the memory of their fathers and grandfathers and how important timing was in these situations.


“Angels off the Record: Public Intercession in Hungarian Private Judgment Frescoes”

Dr. Edina Eszenyi (Maritime Training Academy, Portsmouth, UK)

After the 1300s, the theme of the Last Judgment as the fate of mankind gave way to a new interest in the fate of the individual in funerary traditions. Compositions now depicted earthly dramas at the deathbed of the dying person, with supernatural beings crowding around the bedside. This presentation analyses the role of this public intercession in private judgment compositions through the examples of two frescoes from medieval Hungary and present-day Slovakia. Both frescoes encompass an inherent duality between public and private. While they represent people dying in private, the creation of the artworks has made these moments fully public. I will therefore explore what private judgment compositions can reveal about the changing notion of privacy over time.


“The Lutheran Reformation of the Dead in Denmark-Norway”

Dr. Lars Cyril Nørgaard (Faculty of Theology, University of Copenhagen, Denmark)

During the early stages of the Lutheran Reformation (1517-1521), the Lutherans called into question not only the papal commercialization of indulgences but also the idea that any human could intercede and thereby impact the state of the dead. Later (after 1530), they completely rejected the existence of purgatory. However, Lutheran theology offered no clear-cut alternative space. Where did the souls reside after their bodies had deteriorated? Funeral sermons and epitaphs engaged with this ambiguity, allowing the lives and deaths of individuals to serve as models for the community. Focusing on diverse materials from seventeenth-century Denmark-Norway, I investigate this relocation of the dead as it turned private lives into models for society.



“The Ethics of Mummified Human Remains in Museums: An Impossible Conundrum?”

Dr. Angela Stienne (Independent Researcher)

At the foundation of the interrogations surrounding the display of Egyptian human remains in museums are questions of ethics, privacy, and displacement. But debates are rarely framed that way. To question display that way, is to face the reality that the mummified bodies we look at through a glass case, the ones we study and curate, the ones we exchange with other museums, are no longer the objectified wrapped bodies that have populated our collective consciousness, but displaced and displayed people. To look at privacy in the museum is to confront that we display death, and that privacy is unattainable. We have put physical bodies in glass cases for centuries; and we have put photographs of their bodies – wrapped, unwrapped, torn apart – on the web for decades, augmenting accessibility, and intensifying ethical challenges, too. The ethics of mummified human remains in museums: an impossible conundrum?



Please register here if you wish to attend the Privacy Symposium: PRIVACY AND DEATH: Past and Present . You can sign up for online participation until Wednesday 11 October 12.00 o'clock. 
NB. Deadline for in-person participation 
registration has closed