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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.
"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 loss and mourning."
Over the course of Guatemala's thirty-year armed conflict -the longest ever in Central America-over 200,000 people were killed. During Argentina's military dictatorship in the seventies, over 30,000 people were disappeared. Today, forensic anthropologists in each country are gathering evidence to prove atrocities and seek justice. But these teams do more than just study skeletons-they work to repair families and countries torn apart by violence.
In Still Life with Bones, anthropologist Alexa Hagerty learns to see the dead body with a forensic eye. She examines bones for evidence of torture and fatal wounds-hands bound by rope, cuts from machetes-but also for signs of a life lived: to articulate how life shapes us down to the bone. A weaver is recognized from the tiny bones of the toes, molded by years of kneeling before a loom; a girl is identified alongside her pet dog. In the tenderness of understanding these bones, Hagerty discovers how exhumation serves as a ritual in the naming and placement of the dead, and connects ancestors with future generations. She shows us how this work can bring meaning to families dealing with unimaginable loss, and how its symbolic force can also extend to entire societies in the aftermath of state terror and genocide. Encountering the dead has the power to transform us, making us consider each other, our lives, and the world differently.
Weaving together powerful stories about investigative breakthroughs, grieving families, histories of violence, and her own forensic coming of age, Hagerty crafts a moving portrait of the living and the dead.