The Finnish remains: It’s time for closure

There are currently some 800 human remains at Karolinska Institutet. Around 80 of them come from Finland, and most were brought to Sweden from excavations carried out in deserted cemeteries in 1873 by Gustav Retzius and his colleagues.

These remains from Finland have been the cause of much concern in both countries, and several organisations have called for them to be repatriated to our eastern neighbour.

I’d like to underscore that KI has no reason to keep these remains in our anatomical collections and that we wish to return them to Finland. However, for this to happen, the process needs clearly worded agreements and proper recipients. Retzius and his colleagues acted wrongly back in 1873 and were guilty of an act that today we would consider deeply unethical. We have also issued a public apology for KI’s part in it. In light of this, it’s imperative that we do the right thing this time and make sure that repatriation takes place in a formally correct manner with the respect and ethics that a case of such dignity demands.  

Since the remains do not belong to an indigenous people, international agreements on repatriation do not apply and Sweden and Finland will have to make arrangements at government level. KI has already made it clear that the university is prepared to take an active part in a solution. We are now to take matters a step further.

I have written to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and presented a concrete proposal for the return of the remains to Finland next year, 150 years after their removal. In the interest of transparency, I’m publishing the letter in its entirety here in this blog.

It is my hope that we – Finland, Sweden, and KI – can bring this issue to a dignified, respectful, and considerate closure.

Here is the letter I wrote to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs:

Proposal for the repatriation of the Finnish remains kept at Karolinska Institutet

In my capacity as president of Karolinska Institutet (KI), I spoke last year to Robert Rydberg, the State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, about the 80 or so Finnish human remains kept at the university. This letter is a follow-up of that meeting and is an opportunity for me to make a concrete proposal.

Background in brief

Most of the Finnish remains kept at KI were collected by Gustaf Retzius and his colleagues during a trip to Finland in the summer of 1873. During their trip, they excavated a number of deserted cemeteries, which were not covered at the time by memorial legislation, in order to unearth remains that they considered of archaeological and anthropological interest. These excavations took place in a manner that to contemporary values would be deeply disrespectful and unethical.

At the end of 2018, KI was approached by the Committee for the Return of Finnish Remains (the Committee). Shortly thereafter, KI invited the Committee to a meeting, which was held in December 2018. In subsequent correspondence, the Committee demanded that the remains be promptly returned to Finland and that KI issue a public apology to the individuals and families concerned for what took place in 1873. In its reply to the Committee in February 2019, KI apologised unconditionally for the lack of ethical consideration shown by the university’s representatives at the time the remains were acquired.

KI’s position and proposal

KI has been engaged in some time in a thorough inventorisation of the anatomical collections, of which the Finnish remains form part, and earlier this autumn presented a special report on the human remains at KI, upon which the continuing work with the anatomical collections will be based. KI has also separately documented and reported on the Finnish remains. This document has been registered as public and has been communicated to the Committee and other interested parties. We therefore have now taken our internal preparations as far as we can.

I would like to make it absolutely clear that KI, just like the Committee, wants to bring closure to the matter of the Finnish remains. KI is prepared to do all it can – and has already acted – to ensure that the remains are repatriated to Finland. It is perhaps worth mentioning that KI has made a number of repatriations of remains in recent years, although these remains have been of indigenous peoples, and in this respect there are international agreements to refer to.

As regards the return of the Finnish remains, these agreements are inapplicable since the remains are of the Finnish majority population rather than indigenous peoples. Consequently, repatriation is formally a matter between the Finnish and Swedish governments.

Despite this complicating factor, KI wishes to make a concrete proposal to the Swedish government. We would like Sweden to offer the repatriation of the remains in 2023, 150 years after their exhumation, perhaps at a ceremony attended by KI, the Swedish government, local representatives, and an official delegation from Finland.

Requirements and further preparation  

For this to be possible, as we understand it, an official and legally uncontentious agreement must be signed between Finland and Sweden stating that both parties accept and respect the repatriation of the remains and that such shall be affected by the agreed means. It is imperative that the remains are returned in the correct manner to the right recipient and with all the respect and consideration that the historical background demands.

It is my, and KI’s, express wish that we continue our dialogue with the Swedish government to bring this matter to a close.

I would also like to know the Swedish government’s view on the proposal concerning the repatriation of the Finnish remains in 2023 and on the possibility of its drawing up an agreement with the Finnish government to this end.

Finally, let me stress that we at KI will continue to do our utmost to ensure that this matter is handled in a way that is productive and respectful to all parties. I look forward to our further dealings on this matter and its swift preparation.

Yours respectfully

Ole Petter Ottersen

In closing, let me stress that it is and has been our ambition and policy to be proactive and transparent concerning matters of KI’s historical heritage. It’s also important to know that in recent years, KI has conducted numerous repatriations to minority peoples and arranged open debates through our Ethics Council.

I understand that KI can still come under criticism and that this is a debate to which we must respond. We must never conceal or forget the mistakes our university has made in the past. Covered up mistakes are simply more likely to be repeated.


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