When we think of someone’s final resting place, we usually imagine them staying there for all of eternity. In reality, bodies are sometimes moved from their burial location for a number of reasons. Sometimes they need to be moved for a practical reason, and other times it’s simply because of the family’s wishes.
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Removing a body from the ground might seem grotesque and sometimes even terrifying, but it actually happens a lot more often than you think. Though it’s usually discouraged in many religions, this isn’t an uncommon practice.
Exhuming the dead isn’t just the plot of a horror film—it’s real life. The more you understand about why we bury the dead and what comes after, the less intimidating death and burials become. In this guide, we’ll share the top reasons why people exhume buried bodies.
What Does It Mean to Exhume a Body?
When a body is exhumed, also called an exhumation, the deceased’s remains are removed from the burial site to be moved elsewhere. This can be done for both buried remains and cremated remains.
Though it might sound a bit unusual, this is what it means to exhume a body. There are a number of legal, practical, and personal reasons bodies are exhumed. This is also something that people can’t decide to do on a whim. There are a number of legal requirements that need to be met in most countries to disturb any remains.
Because the process is technical and overseen by professionals to ensure everyone is safe, bodies are usually only exhumed when there’s an important reason to do so. Believe it or not, this happens more often than you might think. Let’s explore some of the most common reasons to exhume a body.
1. Police investigation
One of the most common reasons to exhume a body might actually be the most surprising. If there is an active police investigation about the deceased, the body might be retrieved for further testing and evidence.
Recently, the body of John Dillinger, an infamous Midwestern gangster and robber, was exhumed for further investigation. The buried body was rumored to be an imposter, and further testing is to be done on his fingerprints and remains.
Though this might sound like the plot of a crime investigation show, it’s very much real life. New technology and evidence present themselves every day, and this might mean revisiting old cases—and buried bodies.
Archeology is the study of human history and prehistory. By excavating ancient sites, these professionals learn about the people who came before us, their cultures, and how they treated the dead. There is actually a specific field of study known as mortuary archaeology which helps these individuals learn how to uncover, document, remove, and analyze remains of people.
These bodies are exhumed for the sole purpose of research. Though they’re rarely more than bones, there is still much to learn from them. When no longer used for study, the remains are usually returned to a grave or kept in a museum or lab for safekeeping.
3. DNA testing
DNA testing isn’t just done on the living. In some cases, a DNA test might need to be completed on the dead to determine identity, parental, or genealogical relationships.
Though less common than other methods above, grave records, especially those from past decades, aren’t always clear. Additional testing might be needed to confirm identity or assist with genealogical research.
4. Family wishes
Sometimes these bodies are exhumed by family choice. The body might need to be relocated to another state or country to join a family plot or for a specific cemetery.
This most frequently happens with veterans. War veterans are commonly exhumed from civilian plots and interred in an official burial ground, such as a veteran cemetery.
While the family’s wishes might change after burying a loved one, the cost of moving a grave is expensive. It’s also a complicated process, especially if there is a lot of transportation involved. This is not a step to be taken lightly.
In many parts of the world, space for the dead is limited. With the growing aging population, there is simply too big of a demand for burial space and not enough cemetery plots to accommodate.
Because many parts of the world limit how long you own a specific burial plot, local governments and cemeteries are exhuming bodies to make room for new ones. This recently came to light in Mexico during the 2020 COVID19 pandemic. With growing numbers of the deceased, bodies are being exhumed to make space for those recently dead.
When the body is exhumed, it’s typically returned to its family. From there, the family can choose a new burial location or have their loved one cremated. While less common in the United States, this raises the question about how long we should be buried in our own graves.
Last but not least, there are accounts of graves being robbed for bodies. Though highly uncommon today, this was a regular practice in the 18th and 19th centuries. This practice came to be known as “body snatching.”
What were these bodies used for? They were most commonly sold to medical schools for anatomy lectures and medical study. Known as “resurrectionists,” these bodysnatchers were considered a necessary evil in the early years of medical research.
7. Cultural practices
Last but not least, some cultures around the world use the deceased bodies of loved ones in their cultural practices. The best-known example of this is the Famadihana Ceremonies in Madagascar. Each year, family members participate in the “turning of the bones” ceremony in which bodies are exhumed and honored for several days.
Another example of this is Kurgans. These were prehistoric burial mounds constructed over a grave. Bodies were usually exhumed from above-ground graves to be re-buried in these structures. This just goes to show that exhumation means different things in different cultures, and each tradition has its own way to honor the dead.
What’s the Process for Exhuming a Body?
If you’re seeking to exhume a body for any reason, this is a complicated legal process. Most governments want to dissuade people from digging up relatives' bodies each time they move, wish to find a new cemetery, and so on.
Each state has its own laws about why a body can be exhumed legally. You will need:
- Consent: You’ll need consent from both the owner of the burial grounds and the next of kin of the deceased. If the exhumation will likely disturb nearby graves, you’ll need consent from their surviving relatives as well.
- Exhumation license: The most important thing to have is a valid reason in the eyes of the state. If there is a court document requesting the body to be exhumed for an investigation or research, this is usually enough. For personal reasons (ie. moving to a new cemetery), you’ll need to detail the reason you require the body to be exhumed. You’ll be permitted an exhumation license if this is determined to be a valid reason.
- Transportation confirmation: Depending on where you plan to move the body, you’ll also need transportation confirmations from any airline or shipping company. If you’re moving it to a new cemetery, you’ll need a letter from them as well.
- Environmental Health Officer: An Environmental Health Officer is to be present at every exhumation to make sure it’s done safely.
Once you’ve obtained all licenses and documentation, you’ll need to pass these to the burial authority where the deceased is presently buried. Then, you’ll need to plan the actual exhumation. This typically happens early in the morning to protect the privacy of the family and the deceased.
The site will be evaluated, and the professionals will exhume the body with care and concern. It’s a highly technical process that ensures the body is treated with respect during the excavation and transportation.
Not-So-Final Resting Place: The Practice of Exhumation
Body snatching and digging up the dead seem like practices best left to scary stories and horror films. In reality, exhumation is a real thing that happens in different parts of the world every day. There are many reasons to exhume a body, whether it’s being moved closer to loved ones, it’s part of a cultural tradition, or it’s needed in a police investigation.
Though this might have been a messy (but necessary) practice in the past, exhumations are carefully done today. We usually think the dead should be left to rest, but sometimes that’s just not possible. The needs of the living get in the way, and burials have always been for the living.
- “Body Snatching Around the World.” PBS History Detectives, www.pbs.org/opb/historydetectives/feature/body-snatching-around-the-world/.
- Cummins, Eleanor. “What lies beneath.” Vox News, 30 October 2019, www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/10/23/20920800/exhuming-bodies-john-dillinger-lies-beneath
- Niemczyk, Katherine. “Bodies are being exhumed in Mexico to make room for coronavirus deaths.” CBS News, 11 July 2020, www.cbsnews.com/news/bodies-exhumed-mexico-to-make-room-coronavirus-deaths/