Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, the incorrupt nun of Missouri, showed little sign of decomposition when she was exhumed from her grave 4 years after her death.
Body snatching! Buried alive! The search for immortality. Humanity has always had a complicated relationship with death and the afterlife. Elaborate embalming rituals and funeral customs bely our deepest anxieties about the cemetery that awaits us all in the end. We have erected great monuments to the dead, and assembled macabre memorials with their bones and mummified remains. We have robbed graves, stolen body parts and fashioned morbid objects with human skin. From ancient crypts and catacombs to Victorian mourning and the lifestyle of the modern taphophile, dig up peculiar stories of death through myth, legend, history and graveyard exploration.
Cremation and coffin are no longer the only funeral options. Sure, you could have someone discreetly dump your ashes in the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland like everyone else. But what if you want something different? You don’t have to resort to a standard cemetery burial. Maybe you want to go out with a blazing Viking funeral, or you want to hitch a ride on a rocket into space. You might want your ashes made into glass jewelry or pressed into a vinyl record. Maybe you just want the simple afterlife as human compost. These days there are numerous alternatives to the standard funeral, and green burial options give us more choices than ever before.
How to Protect Your Corpse from Body Snatching
The best way for doctors to study human anatomy in the 18th and 19th centuries was to dissect an actual cadaver. Sure, there were drawings and wax anatomical models, but that wasn’t the same as actually getting your hands inside the guts of a corpse. In Europe, before the Anatomy Act of 1832, only the bodies of executed criminals could be used for dissection as it was considered to be blasphemy.
Medical schools required hundreds more cadavers to anatomize than the justice system was providing, so doctors in training became dependent on the illegal trade in corpses, or body snatching, to get the education they required. Enterprising individuals known as resurrection men made a living sneaking into the graveyard at night to slip the freshly buried dead from their eternal rest.
Horrified, the public sought ways to keep their bodies safe, at least until they had decomposed enough that they were no longer useful. Guards, cemetery alarms, booby traps and other measures were used to deter body snatchers.
A mortsafe was an iron grate or cage fitted over a fresh burial to keep would be graverobbers out. After a few weeks, the mortsafe could be removed and placed on a new grave. Alternatively, a morthouse stored bodies as they decomposed, and a mortstone was a slab of rock placed on a grave.
Resurrectionists would typically pull the body through a small hole in the top of the coffin. A coffin collar was an iron bar placed around the neck and bolted to the bottom of the coffin to lock the corpse in.
A flintlock spring gun would be positioned at the foot of the grave with three tripwires low on the ground. A body snatcher coming upon the dark grave at night would trip one of the wires, causing the gun to fire a lead ball in his direction. Similarly, a coffin torpedo was a shell packed with gun powder that mounted to the lid of the coffin. If it was disturbed, the gunpowder would explode and hit the thief with a shotgun blast.
Cemetery vs Graveyard
Taphophiles tend to use the terms “cemetery” and “graveyard” interchangeably, but did you know there is actually a difference? The word graveyard comes from “churchyard,” the consecrated ground around a church. So a graveyard is specifically a burial ground near a church, while a cemetery is a separate piece of property used for burial that is not connected to a church.
Human Skin Shoes
After train robber Big Nose George Parrott was lynched by an angry mob in 1881, Dr. John Osborn took possession of the body and made himself a fancy pair of shoes from the outlaw’s skin for his inauguration as governor of Wyoming.
Gravestone or Tombstone?
Is there a difference between a gravestone, a headstone and a tombstone? They’re used interchangeably for all types of grave markers now, but they each used to serve a different purpose. Historically, headstones were used to mark the head of the grave, footstones were laid at the foot of the grave, and gravestones were slabs of stone placed over the grave. A tombstone was not a grave marker at all, but the lid of stone coffin or sarcophagus.