What Does It Mean to Exhume a Body?

Updated

Exhuming a body from its grave may send a shiver down your spine. (But those feelings may not keep you from visiting a museum to see mummies in the Egyptology exhibit.)

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What does it mean to exhume a body? We’ll discuss why some bodies are able to rest in peace six feet underground and others are woken from their eternal sleep. We’ll give you examples of bodies that have been dug up for less-than-noble reasons, and others who have been unearthed as the result of criminal investigations.

Exhuming a Body Explained

“Exhume” is a verb that means to “disinter.” This is only helpful if you understand the definition of “interment,” which means "the burial of a corpse in a grave or tomb, typically with funeral rites." A person can exhume a body that is buried underground or one placed in a mausoleum or sarcophagus.

Legally, a person who wants to exhume a body must petition the government to have it done. Bodies that are interred are considered the custody of the law, so the proper legal steps need to be taken before a body is removed from its final resting place.

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Reasons People Exhume Bodies

There are both illegal and legal reasons why bodies may be exhumed, but you have probably watched enough horror movies and criminal investigation shows to be able to list a handful of reasons. There is also a culture that exhumes bodies as a part of an elaborate ceremony. Let’s discuss all of these examples.

Illegal reasons people have exhumed bodies

Throughout the centuries, grave robbers have removed bodies from cemeteries or mausoleums for a variety of reasons. 

Victorian-era grave robbers would sell the bodies to so-called scientists or medical students who would use them for experimentation and study. 

Most of the time, criminals aren’t looking for actual bodies. Instead, they usually dig up a body to remove valuables that were buried with the person. Grave robbers in China often sought jade burial suits. Criminals all over the world have dug up bodies to find precious metals, such as jewelry or gold teeth. 

One of the most famous examples of criminals removing treasures from graves can be found in ancient Egypt. Grave robbers entered the pyramids in the Valley of the Kings and removed priceless artifacts. 

Why investigators may find it necessary to exhume bodies

There are legal reasons why bodies may need to be exhumed. Investigators may petition the government to allow a body to be exhumed to verify the identity of the person buried or to help ascertain the person’s cause of death.

Investigators may also find it necessary to exhume bodies to extract DNA samples to prove or disprove a biological relationship with another person.

An example of exhuming bodies for ceremonies or celebrations

The practice of exhuming bodies for ceremonies or celebrations is extremely uncommon, but there is one rather noteworthy example. Certain groups in Madagascar participate in  Famadihana, which means “turning of the bones.”

During this celebration, deceased family members are removed from crypts. The bodies are cleaned and wrapped in fresh cloth. Next, the bodies are hoisted on shoulders while the community dances. 

Famous Examples of Body Exhumation Around the World

There are several well-known cases of body exhumation from around the world. Let’s discuss some of those examples and some of the lesser-known investigations of unearthed bodies that resulted in convictions. 

Salvador Dali

Surrealist artist Salvador Dali was exhumed from his grave after a woman insisted that the deceased painter was her biological father.

After the body was exhumed and the DNA was extracted from the body, investigators determined that the famous artist was not the father of the woman. 

Noreen Rudd

Noreen Rudd was a 19-year-old woman who died in 1973. According to her husband at the time, Rudd was thrown from a car as a result of an accident.

Forty years later, an investigator had reason to suspect Rudd’s husband of the crime. The body was exhumed, and her husband was found guilty of first-degree murder when the autopsy showed that Rudd had suffered from blunt force trauma to her head.

Jesse James

Sometimes bodies are exhumed to prove or disprove conspiracy theories. One example is the story of Jesse James. It was said that one of James’ comrades shot him in the back to collect the reward money. Some have disputed those claims and have said that James lived for many more years.

His body was exhumed in Kearney, Missouri, and investigators determined that it was, indeed, James, who was buried in the grave.

Michael Wallace

A woman named Stacey Castor lost her husband in 2000. It wasn’t until Castor’s second husband died under suspicious circumstances that investigators thought to perform an autopsy on her first husband.

Castor had poisoned both her first and second husband with antifreeze. 

Abraham Lincoln

There aren’t many dead bodies that could be held for ransom. Apparently, Abraham Lincoln’s was one such body.

Criminals were caught in the act of unearthing the body, and so the body was placed in an unmarked location until a more secure burial site could be created. 

Melba Lott

When Melba Lott was discovered dead in her apartment with cocaine in her system, investigators first assumed she died from a drug overdose.

When investigators determined that there were signs of a struggle, her body was exhumed and reexamined. This examination and DNA evidence proved that three people were responsible for Lott’s death. All three were caught and incarcerated.

Lee Harvey Oswald

No other murder has resulted in more conspiracy theories than John F. Kennedy’s. One of those theories suggested that assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was not who he said he was.

Theorists suspected that a Russian was arrested in place of Oswald, and then the imposter was shot by Jack Ruby. Oswald’s body was exhumed, and dental records proved that theory incorrect. 

Those Killed by Harold Shipman

Dr. Harold Shipman was a British serial killer. He is suspected of killing and then signing the death certificate of hundreds of his patients.

Not all of the murders could be proven since some of the suspected victims’ bodies had been cremated instead of burying the dead. The bodies that were exhumed showed that Shipman had killed the women with morphine injections. 

Zachary Taylor

For years, historians wondered if President Zachary Taylor’s death was the result of murder or not. The seemingly healthy president died suddenly while in office. Since all politicians have enemies, even back in 1850, some thought that perhaps the president was poisoned.

Taylor’s body was exhumed, and investigators concluded that his death was most likely the result of natural causes.

Exhuming Through History

While some government officials prefer not to exhume bodies for investigations, these examples prove that sometimes there are valid reasons. Even though occasionally such autopsies do little more than disprove conspiracy theories, other times, those exhumations show that murders have occurred.

Do you want to be buried or cremated? Perhaps, inadvertently, this article has made you lean toward one choice over another. 

Regardless of which you choose, make sure you share your end-of-life plans with those who will be making your final arrangements. Also, let them know what outfit you would like to be buried in and what songs you want to be played at your funeral. Making these decisions now will make it much easier for your loved ones later.


Sources

  1. “Exhume.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/exhume. Accessed 26 Mar. 2020.
  2. “Exhume Law and Legal Definition.” U.S. Legal. definitions.uslegal.com/e/exhume/
  3. Klein, Christopher. “Digging Up the Dead: History’s Most Famous Exhumations.” The History Channel. 22 August 2018. www.history.com/news/digging-up-the-dead-historys-most-famous-exhumations
  4. Little, Becky. “What Happens When a Body Is Exhumed for a Criminal Investigation?” A&E. 19 February 2020. www.aetv.com/real-crime/exhuming-bodies-from-the-grave-criminal-investigation
  5. “Salvador Dali's body exhumed for DNA tests.” BBC News. 21 July 2017. www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-40677828
  6. “The Probable Jesse James Is Reburied.” Los Angeles Times. 29 October 1995. www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1995-10-29-mn-62600-story.html

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