Reuniting remains of soldiers with relatives

Forensic anthropology is being used to identify remains of people lost in previous world and civil wars
16 May 2022

Interview with 

Nicholas Marquez-Grant, Cranfield University


Another recent use of forensic anthropology has been in reuniting the remains of soldiers lost in war with living relatives. Julia Ravey spoke to Nick Marquez-Grant at Cranfield university who is helping with these humanitarian efforts for remains from World War I, World War II and the Spanish civil war...

Nick - A lot of the bodies were buried trenches, buried in mass graves by the enemy or so on. So now it's a big push to open those mass graves. Perhaps this comes late. But what certainly we can say is that comes at the right time, when we have the DNA in place, we have other techniques to help identify those soldiers.

Julia - So what happens in the field in a sense? So if you find some skeletal remains that you believe to be a soldier who's been lost in battle, what is the process that happens?

Nick - The important thing is when we're excavating to be able to associate an artifact with a person. So I am thinking mass graves here. We have say 30 people in a mass grave, and we have personal effects like a photograph of the family or a wallet. It's so important to be able to identify, in the field, which object goes with which body. I get quite emotional when I see objects because I'm used to examining human remains and look at bone very objectively. And then you have these objects, which could be a train ticket - a return train ticket - or a wallet or a poem or a photograph, and they really bring that person's life to life, actually. This analysis is done to provide a dignified burial to the soldier - a soldier that may be in a trench, is to bring them a dignified burial. Is not always possible to find relatives, but of course, if relatives are found, it's about closure. In the case of the Spanish civil war, which I work on, where people were executed in 1936, including my great-grandfather who still missing, it's about providing a dignified burial to that person. But beyond this returning the remains to the families where possible, there's also a question of what happened. And although some of these cases are not criminal in itself, they're still forensic because we follow forensic protocols. But some of these cases may go to court eventually. So the cases of Spain, the Spanish Civil war, you know, there may be a court case in the future. So it's all done with forensic protocols and chain of custody and all these police processes that we follow. These things should not happen again, and sometimes the bodies are the only communicators that we have of what really happened. Some civil wars are silenced, you know, in textbooks and it's just the body themselves and how they lie and how they're being thrown into their grave that are really the only voice of what happened. And I think it's important for the public to see that.


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