The late Pablo Neruda already lives on in his writings, and now his material remains will be brought to light. On Monday, the Nobel prize-winning poet’s bones were scheduled to be brought up and examined by forensic researchers as part of a Chilean investigation into an alleged government conspiracy.
While you might shrink at the idea of disturbing the dead, sometimes opening a grave is the best way to put questions to rest.
Neruda died in 1973, less than two weeks after General Augusto Pinochet’s forces overthrew the elected socialist president, Salvador Allende. The poet and the president were friends; Neruda was highly active in left-wing politics, and himself was nominated for president on the Chilean Communist Party ticket. Though the official cause of Neruda’s death was given as prostate cancer, the poet’s driver has accused Pinochet agents of injecting Neruda with poison.
Reexamining Neruda’s remains with the advantages of modern forensic techniques could prove or disprove the driver’s story, but the answers likely won’t come quickly.
"There is lots of water [where Neruda is buried], lots of salinity and it will take months of investigation," Eduardo Contreras, a Chilean lawyer leading the charge to investigate the poet’s death, told the Guardian. But "we have world-class labs from India, Switzerland, Germany, the U.S., Sweden, they have all offered to do the lab work for free. That is the tenderness that he still provokes in people."
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Exhuming a body is a tricky process, both legally and medically. If the exhumation is part of an investigation, there needs to be some evidence pointing toward foul play in a person’s death. But many exhumations are performed for more mundane reasons. Sometimes construction requires a cemetery to be moved, or relatives of the deceased want to bury their family member somewhere else. Oftentimes, if a person is buried in consecrated ground, examiners must also get permission from local religious authorities.
When a grave is opened, what forensic examiners will have to work with is determined by the local climate.
“The ground conditions largely determine the body's rate of decomposition,” exhumation specialist, Peter Mitchell, told the Guardian last year. “The temperature, presence of air and water, the depth, and insect activity are all determinates.”
In hotter, drier climates, any preserved flesh will likely be desiccated, or drained of fluid. A wetter climate is more conducive to putrefecation by bacteria and other microorganisms.
“Preservation of soft tissues in nature is essentially a competition between decay and desiccation,” forensic experts, Paul Sledzik and Marc Micozzi, wrote in one chapter of “Forensic Taphonomy: The Postmortem Fate of Human Remains.”
Forensic examiners in the Neruda investigation will want to take tissue samples from the remains. Even if there are only bones left, some traces of poison may linger. Not all poisons migrate to the bones, but many, like arsenic and mercury, can settle in bones, hair and fingernails.
Nearly 40 years have passed since Neruda died, but forensic scientists often work with much older remains. Chemical analysis of the remains of famed 16th century astronomer Tycho Brahe put to rest rumors that he died of mercury poisoning (the actual cause was most likely bladder infection, caused in part by a rupture that occurred after he was too polite to use the bathroom during a royal banquet in 1601). French forensic sleuth Philippe Charlier is analyzing specks of dusts from Richard the Lionheart’s heart, to see if he can determine exactly what infection laid him low after he was wounded by a crossbow in 1199. In February, Charlier and his team released their first analysis of the heart in the journal Nature, describing how the organ was preserved.
Sometimes exhumations reveal cases of mistaken identity. Charlier and colleagues found that Catholic relics supposedly containing the bones of Joan of Arc actually held remains from a cat and an Egyptian mummy.