Still Life with Bones
Genocide, Forensics, and What Remains
An anthropologist working with forensic teams and victims’ families to investigate crimes against humanity in Latin America explores what science can tell us about the lives of the dead in this haunting account of grief, the power of ritual, and a quest for justice.
“Absorbing . . . multifaceted and elegiac . . . Still Life with Bones captures the ethos that drives the search—often tireless and against the odds—for truth.”—The New York Times
“Exhumation can divide brothers and restore fathers, open old wounds and open the possibility of regeneration—of building something new with the ‘pile of broken mirrors’ that is memory, loss, and mourning.”
Throughout Guatemala’s thirty-six-year armed conflict, state forces killed more than two hundred thousand people. Argentina’s military dictatorship disappeared up to thirty thousand people. In the wake of genocidal violence, families of the missing searched for the truth. Young scientists joined their fight against impunity. Gathering evidence in the face of intimidation and death threats, they pioneered the field of forensic exhumation for human rights.
In Still Life with Bones, anthropologist Alexa Hagerty learns to see the dead body with a forensic eye. She examines bones for marks of torture and fatal wounds—hands bound by rope, machete cuts—and also for signs of identity: how life shapes us down to the bone. A weaver is recognized from the tiny bones of the toes, molded by kneeling before a loom; a girl is identified alongside her pet dog. In the tenderness of understanding these bones, forensics not only offers proof of mass atrocity but also tells the story of each life lost.
Working with forensic teams at mass grave sites and in labs, Hagerty discovers how bones bear witness to crimes against humanity and how exhumation can bring families meaning after unimaginable loss. She also comes to see how cutting-edge science can act as ritual—a way of caring for the dead with symbolic force that can repair societies torn apart by violence.
Weaving together powerful stories about investigative breakthroughs, histories of violence and resistance, and her own forensic coming-of-age, Hagerty crafts a moving portrait of the living and the dead.
"Bones are always joined to grief, memory, and ritual," contends anthropologist Hagerty in this searing report on the grueling labor and psychological stress of her time in Guatemala and Argentina excavating the mass graves of victims of political violence. Digging into the history of the two countries, the author discusses the Guatemalan government's massacre of tens of thousands of Maya people from the 1960s to 1996 and the Argentine military dictatorship's murder of dissidents from 1976 to 1983. She describes using DNA, oral histories, and fragments of clothing to identify victims and return the remains to families, noting that community members can sometimes recognize a body by the unique pattern on a handwoven huipil, a kind of traditional blouse. "To recognize a missing person in a bone is a difficult act of imagination," she muses, telling the story of a woman who struggled to make sense of her brother's death after a fragment of his pelvic bone was found in a mass grave. Hagerty never loses sight of the humanity of the dead and the pain felt by the survivors, nimbly weaving together political history and personal narratives to illuminate the difficult process of accounting for atrocities. Intense and emotional, this is a vital rumination on political violence.