Defining a mass grave

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Do a google search for "mass grave Ireland" and Tuam comes up, top of the list.

The phrase mass grave is used descriptively and emotionally. There's a chamber with multiple bodies in it. There are serious questions about the numbers of bodies and the decency with which the children & babies were treated in life and death. Our society prizes decent treatment of our dead, regardless of status - at least we say we do.


But when you read the most recent technical report (December 2017) from the Tuam research team they say

"The site here cannot be considered a mass grave in terms of what is typically associated with violence or conflict; however, any further physical investigation here would necessitate the use of the skillset designed to forensically investigate mass graves. " (emphasis mine).(Executive Summary, pii)

So, this is not your typical mass grave but the forensic techniques used to record mass graves are highly relevant to Tuam. If this isn't your typical mass grave then what type of grave is it? I have read the report a couple of times and I'm still not sure what type of grave the authors think this is.

Haglund et al (2001) explain why these types of questions persist. It is not, they say, an easy matter to define a mass grave. Better, they say, keep the term relative and describe the grave in terms of numbers of individuals it contains. One of their graves has over 500 individuals buried in it!

Haglund warns we should not confuse the definition of what a mass grave is with how it came about. Which is a point I do not understand. He explains one archaeological definition of a mass grave was 'it contains at least half a dozen individuals' and another, medico-legal in origin, required that there were three or more individuals who died by summary, extra-judicial, or arbitrary execution.


When I worked in archaeobotanical projects years ago we used to identify plant remains by a process of elimination. Maybe that is the way we should work when defining what type of graves we are dealing with. First define what it isn't, and then see what you are left with. To do that we need to place Tuam M&BH in context; which is, I believe, contrary to what Haglund et al. recommended be done.

The first major consideration is that the burials in the Tuam Mother & Baby Home grounds were institutional.

The second consideration is that the burials took place on the property itself. There could easily have been an institutional plot in the adjacent cemetery. Why wasn't there?

The third consideration is that the institution was run by a religious order and managed within the diocese ie. under the ultimate control of the bishop. Did the institution consecrate the ground they used for the burials, according to their belief system? For those who believe in Christianity consecration is a transformative process - it changes a building into a church. A yard into a graveyard. It represents the place of God on earth. Could consecration change a disused septic tank into a sacred burial place? Yes. If you believe.

Sacred ground-

Common grave? - The chambers containing the human bones in Tuam have not been described in detail but they appear to have been built originally as part of a waste water or sewage system for the Workhouse. So this is not, strictly speaking, a grave - it is a reused structure. The nearby Workhouse burials excavated by Delaney & team in 2014 were buried in a common grave -2-3 coffined burials per grave. Each person was given a decent burial regardless of their poverty and low social status. That is standard practice in a well run institution. The same process was followed in Kilkenny workhouse where people were buried in coffins in common graves measuring approx 2m x 1.5m and each common grave perhaps being filled and closed in one week.

Common tomb? A tomb is a vaulted burial chamber. In Ireland these are usually private and contain the remains of mulitple family members. We find tombs all over the country. A common burial is a matter of economics. If we can afford a private grave in a burial ground then we purchase it. If we can't we can pay simply for the gravedigger/sextons time in opening and closing a grave and or burying the body. With institutional burials what are the burial costs encountered? Did institutions use common tombs for burial purposes? This is a key question to be answered in the coming years. The Tuam technical report finds it hard to place Tuam M&BH in an Irish context because, I presume, 19th and early 20th century burial practices are so little studied.

Non sacred ground-

Ad hoc burials. An ad hoc burial happens when a person or institution responds to burial requirements as the situation necessitates. Mass graves tend to be ad hoc. They tend to be reactive; they can be hidden due to legal concerns, in remote places or in plain sight.


Ok, I've talked my way round in circles. Mass graves are hard to define. If there are many many babies and children buried in the Tuam underground chambers then it is a mass of burials. Did the children get a decent burial? Was the ground consecrated in the first place? Were they respectfully shrouded or in coffins? Was each burial attended and given funeral rites by a member of the clergy?  As they were laid into underground chambers can we catergorise the burial place as a tomb? Repurposed.

Can the diocese show that the ground was consecrated? Even if they don't have a record of a priest blessing the ground, does that mean that a priest never consecrated the ground? If you clean out an old septic tank/wastewater structure; block it's feeding drains; consecrate it - is it then a formal, Christian burial place?


Defining a mass grave is a complex process and with politicised issues such as Tuam one person's mass grave will be another's common tomb.

To my mind it all comes back to that strange word 'decency'. Can we infer decent treatment from the archaeological & historical data?




Haglund et al 2001

Geber, J.

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