by Andrea Campbell
Here is a question I've received from someone who is writing a novel and needs to know about exhumation.
A.: Ah, this is tricky territory. People have strong feelings about death, dying and disturbing the dead. The errant lecture gene in my body is forcing me to tell you that if you are going to use exhumation in a novel, you’d best have some people complain, and vociferously. With that out of the way, I can tell you what I found out.
I called the local coroner in my town, Dr. Gene Shelby. Dr. Shelby has been on the job a year, and previously, was with “emergency services.” He said that someone would have to enlist the aid of a private attorney and have them make a petition for a court order, which is then filed with a “circuit” (read this as criminal or district) court judge. On the petition will be a statement of good cause, and the petitioner would have to pay for all the expenses.
Here is an example of the Mississippi statute on this subject:
MISSISSIPPI CODE OF 1972
As Amended SEC. 41-61-67. Disinterment; costs; petition for order of exhumation.
SOURCES: Laws, 1986, ch. 459, Sec. 14, eff from and after July 1, 1986.
*Note: All states will have their own laws so check yours for complete accuracy.
During the ‘heyday’ of modern anatomy (1700-1900’s), the only legal source of dissection specimens were the bodies of executed criminals. Nevertheless, demand far exceeded the supply. Anatomists and medical students resorted to an underground ‘cadaver pipeline’—a black market of bodies, procured by resurrectionists; and the students and teachers alike, participated in illegal procurement themselves and, in fact, this was a rather common method for students to help defray the cost of their tuition. Needless to say, the public was not enamored with the practice of grave robbing.
In a few notable cases, the public demands for the practice to stop went from complaining to action and spilled over into civil unrest that could no longer be ignored by government. The first of these instances was the New York Doctors' Riot of 1788. It all started when a student in an anatomy lab taunted a young boy who was staring in through the window at the hospital. The student callously waved a severed arm at the boy and told him that it was his mother’s. Coincidentally, the boy’s mother had recently died and upon visiting her grave, the boy's father found that it had been robbed. In the ensuing three-day riot over this debacle, the lab was burned down, much of the hospital was destroyed, and seven rioters were killed.
Still, the dramatic increase in the number of bodies needed, gave rise to another event, this one concerning two infamous grave robbers (also known as sack-em-up men or body snatchers). William Burke and William Hare of Edinburgh, England, entered the limelight when they were arrested for murdering people and selling their bodies to local anatomists. Burke and Hare were eventually caught in 1829 and charged with sixteen murders (although some sources speculate that it could have been as high as 30).
Hare provided evidence for the prosecutor, and Burke was sentenced to death by hanging. In a sardonic twist, Burke’s body was dissected and put on public display. The notoriety of Burke and Hare prompted drafting of the Warburton Anatomy Act of 1832, legislation allowing anatomists to dissect unclaimed pauper bodies. T
"They often said to one another that no person could find them out, no one being present at the murders but themselves two and that they might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb"
from Burke's official confession
A request to exhume explorer Meriwether Lewis’s remains: