The location, exhumation and identification of human remains associated with mass violence and genocide has come to occupy an important place in the panoply of transitional justice measures over the past two decades. Yet the issues that accompany this work - and that cut across the ‘politics of dead bodies’ as well as the politics of knowledge and the ‘disciplines of the dead’ - may well exceed the bounds of transitional justice. These issues are explored here via the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The article also looks at the practice of reburial, with a specific interest in how it came to be figured, and how it featured in debates on the colonial dead as well as in subsequent work of the Missing Persons Task Team (MPTT), a unit established in the TRC’s wake. The focus on practice seeks to bring to view, not only the body of exhumation, but a range of other agencies or ‘mediating interpretants’ who do, interpret and study the work of exhumation – exhumation teams, families, the media, scholars - and to think these together.
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This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book shows the undeniable contribution and the limits of the biopower theory in the understanding of dead bodies en masse. It talks about the fact that criminology has for so long ignored mass crime, even though the link between the corpse and the criminal is one of the fundamentals of the discipline. The book addresses the issue of the practical and symbolic treatment of corpses by societies affected by mass violence. It shows how working ideologies along with historical legacy and geographical landscapes determined the disposal of the bodies. The book examines the simultaneously diplomatic and medicolegal nature of the activities of the French Search Commission for Corpses of Deportees in Germany. It also draws on German archives to describe the various modalities of treatment of corpses in Croatia.