By Emily Mueller Epstein, Principal Investigator/Lab Director at Commonwealth Heritage Group, Inc.
When people find out I am an archaeologist, I am sometimes asked, “Can you dig anywhere you want? Can you keep what you find?” The answer to both questions is always “no,” followed by a primer on state and federal cultural resources laws. Another question I get is “What do you do if you find a dead body?” When someone asks this question without providing any contextual details, I always answer “Don’t touch anything and call law enforcement!”
In Michigan you are obligated to call the authorities if you believe you’ve found a dead body, or any part of one. The Michigan Administrative Code R325.8051 Rule 1 states “A person who inadvertently discovers a burial or parts of a human skeleton shall immediately notify the police authority of the jurisdiction where the remains are found.” The penalty for failing to contact authorities ranges from being charged with a misdemeanor (one-year imprisonment and up to $1000 fine) or a felony (five years imprisonment and up to a $5000 fine; MCL § 333.2841).
There are several possible outcomes once law enforcement responds to the scene of discovery. Authorities may determine the bones wrapped inside, let’s say, a blue tarp are the carcass of a whitetail deer, remnants of hunting season. A report is filed, and the case is closed.
In another scenario, authorities respond to the scene of discovery—for example next to a hiking trail in a park—and suspect the individual is human. Material evidence at the scene suggests the individual died recently (e.g., hiking boots, smart phone, and water bottle). The authorities on-site call the Medical Examiner’s office, which then evaluates the situation, decides the death is in fact recent, and proceeds with the death investigation.
If, however, law enforcement or the Medical Examiner’s office suspects the individual identified near the hiking trail died a very long time ago, the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) must be informed so the SHPO archaeology team can assess the remains. From the Michigan Administrative Code R325.8051 Rule 1 “If preliminary inspection by the police authority indicates that the remains are those of a prehistoric or historic Native American, the state archaeologist of the Michigan history division, department of state, shall be immediately notified of the finding.”
Others may ask me “Can you dig up a dead body?” According to then Michigan Attorney General Frank J. Kelley’s Opinion No. 6585, “The settled policy of this state is to preserve and maintain the burial places of the dead” (1989). Section 2853 of the Public Health Code (MCL 333.2853; MSA 14.15(2853) indicates a permit for disinterment and reinterment is required before disinterment of a dead body. Whether a burial is on state or private land makes no difference; a local health department or court disinterment decree is required before a landowner or excavator may disinter human remains, regardless of whether the disinterer is a scientific institution or society. Penalties, of course, exist for the violation of these rules.