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Burial Investigations

An excerpt from Before and After: A Test of the Reliability of Surface Assessments of Mortuary Features by Michael W. Spence. KEWA Newsletter of the London Chapter, Ontario Archaeological Society. November & December 2013. 13-7 & 8. Page 17-23.**

There is a long history of burial investigation in Ontario. At present the discovery of possible human remains triggers a sequence of procedures required by the Coroner’s Act, the Cemeteries Act (Revised) of 1990, and the Funeral, Burial and Cremation Services Act of 2002 (see Carruthers 1999). The discovery must be reported to police and/or a coroner, who will initiate an investigation conducted by a forensic anthropologist. There are six individuals in Ontario currently approved to do these investigations. Each of us works with a Forensic Pathology Unit and a Supervising Coroner.

Forensic Excavation
Forensic Excavation – Image courtesy of Mike Spence (pictured bottom left)

The purpose of this initial investigation, done under the Coroner’s Act, is to determine if the remains are indeed human and, if so, whether they present a situation of forensic concern (if the person died within the last 50-60 years) to require a full forensic investigation. It is believed that this time span still allows the possibility of identifying the individual and, if criminal actions were involved, of bringing those responsible to justice.

The Cemeteries Act (Revised) and the Funeral, Burial and Cremation Services Act set out the requirements for those investigations that are not forensic. These usually require the services of an archaeologist and, ideally, a bioarchaeologist or forensic anthropologist. Over the past several years a set of informal but generally accepted procedures have developed for the conduct of these investigations to gain the maximum amount of information with the minimal amount of disturbance to the remains.

The area immediately around the bones is cleared, without encroaching on them, to determine whether they are in disturbed topsoil, a man-made feature like a pit or grave, or some other context. The surface of the deposit will then be cleaned, taking care not to displace any bones that are still in situ.

If the investigation has been initiated by the coroner, this limited exposure should be enough to determine if the site is of forensic concern. The Cemeteries Registrar will want to know whether the find is an “irregular burial site” (unintentionally deposited human remains), an “unapproved cemetery” or an “unapproved Aboriginal Peoples cemetery.” As part of this, data on the “cultural affiliation of the deceased” and “the style and manner in which the remains are interred” are required (Ministry of Consumer Services 1998; Carruthers 1999).

First Nations, as would be expected, may have a wide variety of responses to such finds, affected in part by their cultural background, present-day social and political concerns, and the degree of threat to the find. A common theme underlying their reactions is the desire to minimize disturbance to the bones. Beyond that, however, some are interested in learning about the deceased individuals, either because they need particular information (like the gender of the deceased) to ensure appropriate rituals, or simply because they want to know more about their ancestors. Some believe that the discovery of ancient bones is not an accident, and that the ancestors have something that they want to communicate to their descendants.

The landowner usually wants just to resolve the matter with a minimum of bother and expense. The archaeologists, on the other hand, want to know everything about the find. However, their role is limited. They can offer advice but, beyond the initial probing, cannot excavate without the agreement of the landowner and whatever First Nation the Cemeteries Registrar has appointed to act on behalf of the deceased.


Mike Spence
Mike Spence in protective clothing at forensic site

Carruthers, Peter
1999 The Discovery of Human Remains – Best Practices. Arch Notes 4(2):10-13.

Ministry of Consumer Services
1998 The Discovery of Human Remains – Best Practices. Toronto.

Spence, Michael W.
2011a The Mortuary  Features of teh tillsonburg Village Site. Ontario Archaeology 91:3-20.

** Read the full article here.

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