The memorial site for the victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. Photograph: matsj.

This November, an international team of forensic scientists announced that Pablo Neruda’s body, exhumed in April from his seaside grave at his home in Isla Negra, Chile, had yielded no signs of poisoning or other foul play. The news ran counter to allegations that agents of the right-wing Pinochet dictatorship might have given the poet, who was suffering from prostate cancer, a poison injection during his treatments at a Santiago clinic. Only a few days after the results from the Neruda autopsy were released, experts in Brazil exhumed the remains of former president João Goulart, to test similar theories of a military conspiracy to murder the ousted leftist. Neruda and Goulart join a string of high-profile exhumations of deceased presidents and other famous figures in the past few years, including longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whose body was tested in November 2012 for traces of a radioactive poison.

These reappearing celebrity bodies—with their macabre, cloak-and-dagger tales—make for easy headlines. However, by crowding the spotlight, they obscure the fact that the conflicts they lived through also affected millions of ordinary people. News outlets proclaim the dramatist Federico García Lorca’s gravesite, which a 2009 exhumation effort failed to locate, Spain’s “greatest Civil War mystery”—even as the remains of many of his Republican countrymen are located, exhumed, and identified all around his elusive resting place. Around the globe, in fact, forensic science is being used in major projects to locate and identify these “ordinary” victims. The same unit of the Chilean state’s forensic service in charge of the Neruda autopsy also has rows of shelves full of boxes that contain the remains of Chileans who were “disappeared” during Pinochet’s political purges. Their stories are less thriller-ready than the rumors about Neruda, Goulart, Arafat, or Salvador Allende (whose autopsy a few years ago revealed he shot himself inside the presidential palace of La Modena, though for years it was believed he had been murdered). But what ordinary people actually suffered in a place such as Chile is worse than any poison injection: torture, rape, and murder for crimes that were sometimes as simple as belonging to a labor union.

All around the world, from Libya to Spain to Bosnia-Herzegovina, we are digging up the dead. In Chile, a nation still in “transition” from its authoritarian past, this has proved a complicated affair. In 2006, officials revealed that many of the remains exhumed from Chile’s most notorious mass grave, Patio 29, had been misidentified. The errors seem to have resulted from the hasty application of inadequate identification techniques by an under-funded and under-trained group of investigators. One result was a re-opening of old wounds for relatives who thought they had finally laid their loved ones to rest, but were actually reburying strangers. In the fallout from the scandal, the state’s forensic service was completely restructured; Chile’s ability to mobilize technology to identify the “disappeared” and regain the trust of their families is now closely connected, in the minds of many, with the basic legitimacy of the post-dictatorship state.

In Bosnia, where the wars of the 1990s have prompted unprecedented large-scale efforts to identify the dead, investigators recently found what they believe to be the largest mass grave of Bosnian Muslim and Croat victims of ethnic cleansing. The story this grave helps to tell is as complex as it is tragic: a story of a fragmenting nation, neighbors who turned on one another (or at least turned a blind eye when the men with guns came), victims the international community had already identified as in need of protection but whose lives it didn’t save. A story, in other words, of ordinary people destroyed by historical events, rather than people we remember as agents of history.

Identifying these victims of state violence and ethnic conflict is often technically difficult and fraught with complex local and international politics. Yet these projects also seem far less ambiguous in their value than the new wave of celebrity exhumations. The efforts to put to rest competing stories about famous men’s deaths—women’s bodies are largely absent from the exhumation furor, mirroring their absence from many of the historical narratives that are under dispute—have so far been mostly unsuccessful. The investigations into the mass graves of the ordinary dead succeed, not always but often, in ending the long vigil of families who have awaited both information about their loved one’s fates and their bones, to bury in dignity. These investigations do not solve mysteries about famous figures, already the protagonists of so many stories, but instead give stories to people whose lives were cut short and covered over. Rather than uncover secret plots, the exhumations of ordinary victims clarify the daily methods of violence  murderous regimes have applied to their own citizenry. While the forensic science practiced on these victims is far from omnipotent or infallible, when conducted with the proper resources and care it has proved capable of reuniting families even with small fragments of loved ones whose remains were moved from grave to grave by perpetrators intent on covering their tracks.

Identifying the victims of state violence and ethnic conflict succeeds in ending the long vigil of families.

In fact, the burst of forensic activity around the globe involves three categories of the dead: the famous, the ordinary, and the invisible. (The infamous dead, from Osama bin Laden to Tamerlan Tsarnaev, are a whole other story.) When it comes to the “disappeared” of Chile and Argentina, or the dead of Srebrenica and Tomasica, we may not know their thousands of individual stories, but most of us recognize what they suffered as paradigmatic examples of human rights violations. This is not the case for the corpses of the United States border, who are among the invisible dead. For years, a group of Arizona-based experts, now called the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, have been working to match reports from family members with the bodies of people found dead in the desolate areas where they attempted to gain entry to the United States. These experts make a point of labeling their identification efforts as human rights work—just like the exhumations in Bosnia and Chile. To support this claim, the Colibrí Center’s website documents the direct relationship between ramped-up patrolling of the border and rising death tolls in the most remote parts of the desert. No one put a gun to the heads of these migrants, but their deaths were foreseeable, as the efforts at border security have done little to stop the overall flow of migrants, but much to push their crossings into deadlier areas. Their corpses are hidden from the view of ordinary Americans and rarely mentioned in the stagnating discussion about immigration reform.

The Colibrí Center’s work is, in fact, consistent with both the fundamental workings of forensic science and the foundational ideas of human rights. The methods of forensic identification rely on the uniqueness of individuals—the signs of trauma written into flesh and bone, the genetic codes revealed in our DNA. But there is no correspondence between the uniqueness of these identifying features and the special qualities or noteworthiness a particular individual was said to have in life. Scientifically, if not socially, we are all equal in death—individuated by specific features of our biology, but equally subject to the same methods of analysis and forces of decay. 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 and invoked by activists and survivors in Argentina, Chile, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and every other place where mass graves have blighted the landscape, celebrates “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” While the U.N. Declaration has spawned philosophical disagreements about the meaning of dignity, postcolonial and feminist critiques of what is meant by “family,” and so on, at its core is an idea that almost no one finds unappealing: the basic equality of all who live, dream, and, especially, suffer.

The experts identifying dead migrants near the U.S. border can take comfort in the fact that, whatever wedge Cold War politics may have placed between visions of political liberty and a sense of social and economic common good, the Declaration does not differentiate, morally or politically, between the person who died facing a firing squad and the person who died because there was no work, no food, no medicine. Dignity, whatever it is, belongs as much to the John Doe in a Tucson morgue as to Pablo Neruda. It also belongs to the thousands of indigent dead and stillborn infants buried on New York’s Hart Island, and the Typhoon Haiyan victims buried in mass graves—sometimes with tags in the hopes of future identification—in the Philippines.

When competing visions of belonging, civic duty, and rights are in play, burials and graves can take on new importance. This theme is at the heart of Sophocles’s great tragedy, Antigone, which tells the story of how Antigone defies the ruler of Thebes, Creon, by burying her brother Polynices. As penalty for feuding with his brother and attacking Thebes, Polynices’s corpse was to be placed beyond the city’s walls and left to scavengers. Antigone shows how conflicts over political order are played out over the bodies of the dead. We may have fought each other and been otherwise unjust in life, but in how we treat the dead we have one final opportunity to show what sort of ethic really guides us. Antigone died declaring her duty to family and the gods over the state; from the rest of us, the quality of our attention may be all that we have to offer. But attention to the ordinarily invisible dead can have radical potential, asking us to rethink who makes up our body politic, and who counts as victims of human rights violations.

In his poem “Modestly,” found in one of the last unpublished manuscripts written before his death, Neruda asks “permission to be like everybody else, / like the rest of the world and what’s more, like anybody else.” He ends with a plea: “resign yourselves to my quiet absence.” His exhumation has, of course, been far from quiet. Yet perhaps the best way to honor someone like Neruda is to unearth more stories of the ordinary lives of “pure bread, soccer, side streets with garbage in the doorways” the poet himself so loved. These lives, interrupted by violence, too often ending at clandestine graves or in quiet stretches of the desert, are every bit as real and tragic as those of the absent great men of history.