A declaration of the responsibilities of present generations toward past generations

Historians study the living and the dead. If we can identify the rights of the living and their responsibilities to the dead, we may be able to formulate a solid ethical infrastructure for historians. A short and generally accepted answer to the question of what the rights of the living are can be found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The central idea of human rights is that the living possess dignity and therefore deserve respect. In addition, the living believe that the dead also have dignity and thus deserve respect too. When human beings die, I argue, some human traces survive and mark the dead with symbolic value. The dead are less than human beings, but still reminiscent of them, and they are more than bodies or objects. This invites us to speak about the dead in a language of posthumous dignity and respect, and about the living, therefore, as having some definable core responsibilities to the dead. I argue further that these responsibilities are universal. In a Declaration of the Responsibilities of Present Generations toward Past Generations, then, I attempt to cover the whole area. I identify and comment on four body- and property-related responsibilities (body, funeral, burial, and will), three personality-related responsibilities (identity, image, and speech), one general responsibility (heritage), and two consequential rights (memory and history). I then discuss modalities of non-compliance, identifying more than forty types of failures to fulfill responsibilities toward past generations. I conclude that the cardinal principle of any code of ethics for historians should be to respect the dignity of the living and the dead whom they study.