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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.
“Absorbing . . . multifaceted and elegiac . . . Still Life with Bones captures the ethos that drives the search—often tireless and against the odds—for truth.”—The New York Times
“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 memory, loss, and mourning.”
Throughout Guatemala’s thirty-six-year armed conflict, state forces killed more than two hundred thousand people. Argentina’s military dictatorship disappeared up to thirty thousand people. In the wake of genocidal violence, families of the missing searched for the truth. Young scientists joined their fight against impunity. Gathering evidence in the face of intimidation and death threats, they pioneered the field of forensic exhumation for human rights.
In Still Life with Bones, anthropologist Alexa Hagerty learns to see the dead body with a forensic eye. She examines bones for marks of torture and fatal wounds—hands bound by rope, machete cuts—and also for signs of identity: how life shapes us down to the bone. A weaver is recognized from the tiny bones of the toes, molded by kneeling before a loom; a girl is identified alongside her pet dog. In the tenderness of understanding these bones, forensics not only offers proof of mass atrocity but also tells the story of each life lost.
Working with forensic teams at mass grave sites and in labs, Hagerty discovers how bones bear witness to crimes against humanity and how exhumation can bring families meaning after unimaginable loss. She also comes to see how cutting-edge science can act as ritual—a way of caring for the dead with symbolic force that can repair societies torn apart by violence.
Weaving together powerful stories about investigative breakthroughs, histories of violence and resistance, and her own forensic coming-of-age, Hagerty crafts a moving portrait of the living and the dead.
About the Author
Alexa Hagerty is an anthropologist researching science, technology, and human rights. She holds a PhD from Stanford University and is an associate fellow at the University of Cambridge. Her research has received honors and funding from the National Science Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the American Ethnological Society, among other institutions. She has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Wired, Social Anthropology, and Palais de Tokyo.
“Haunted and fascinating . . . lyrical . . . The stories of these excavators of the past are told compellingly in Still Life with Bones.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Moving and beautiful, harrowing and horrifying . . . A single sentence can stop you in your tracks. . . . Still Life with Bones is stark and upsetting, but also deeply humane and shot through with a hard-won wisdom. You will see forensics in a new light.”—New Scientist
“Absorbing. . . . Still Life with Bones is multifaceted and elegiac: a memoir of a formative period in Hagerty’s life as a social scientist, a tribute to the people she met along the way, and a warning against the belief that the worst crimes of authoritarianism have been relegated to the past.”—The New York Times
“Chilling and vital. . . . sensitive and thought-provoking.”—The Times
“Still Life with Bones is at once horrifying and impossibly hopeful.”—Francisco Cantú, New York Times bestselling author of The Line Becomes a River
“Meticulous, luminous, utterly brilliant . . . The prose is as delicate and sharp as a rib cage, but the book’s beating heart is Hagerty’s wise and compassionate voice, a welcome guide through the atrocities she documents.”—Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, author of The Fact of a Body
“Hagerty, a Chekhovian angel of science and poetry, has written an intimate, moving, mesmerizing account. The world is what it is, its global sorrows ever mounting, but this treasure of a book somehow makes it more bearable.”—Francisco Goldman, author of Monkey Boy, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize
“An electrifying read, full of profound personal insight and intellectual generosity . . . Bones tell chilling stories about our past, but they preserve, too, the potency of alternative outcomes. Hagerty unlocks this possibility with wisdom and compassion.”—Cristina Rivera Garza, author of Liliana’s Invincible Summer
“Touching and achingly honest—a most amazing account of training as a forensic anthropologist . . . When Hagerty talks about ‘lives being violently made into bones,’ I defy you not to be moved.”—Sue Black, author of All That Remains
“With poetic prose, Hagerty takes us to a liminal space between life and death, where forensic anthropologists descend into darkness in search of light. This remarkable book is a must-read.”—Clea Koff, author of The Bone Woman
“Soulful but unsentimental. . . . A powerful meditation on life, death, and sorting out what can be saved of death in life.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review) “Every beautifully written page of this extraordinary book affirms the individuality of each victim, and honors the living who serve them and their survivors.”—BookPage (starred review)
“Searing . . . Intense and emotional, this is a vital rumination on political violence.”—Publishers Weekly