Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Exhuming Corpses For Fun and Profit

    (This nonfiction article is a reprint, having been published twice before, in slightly different versions, once in the late, lamented "Morbid Curiosity" magazine.)

     Whenever I tell someone that I’m an archaeologist, the typical response is something like, “Cool.  I’ve always been interested in that.”  Then when I describe a common artifact or site their eyes invariably glaze over.  I certainly understand it; they’re used to seeing dramatic things like Egyptian tombs or Mayan temples on television or in National Geographic, and a few projectile points or the remains of a fire pit ( things that contract archaeologists like myself commonly encounter) usually just aren’t interesting to a layperson.
     However, mention that you’ve exhumed graves, and your audience usually perks up.  Many people pepper you with questions.  And the ones that don’t ask anything usually are doing so because they find the concept revolting, but not tedious.
     Burial projects aren’t that common in my line of work, but even so, in my twenty years in the field I’ve spent over two of these years just exhuming.  The jobs have ranged from a week long project investigating a tiny, six grave family cemetery, to a nine month long job with over 4000 bodies, and requiring a crew of 50 to remove them.  The jobs have been mostly in the Mid Atlantic, and were fairly recent historic burials—early 1800’s up to the 1960’s. 
     For a variety of reasons the maps and overall burial records of the cemeteries were usually spotty and incomplete.  Therefore we generally had only a rough idea of where grave shafts were.  The excavation of the graves was almost always begun by the backhoes; the machines would remove most of the soil atop the graves until the outlines of the grave shafts were seen.  (Oh, and I know the expression is “Six feet under” but clearly, especially in pre-backhoe days, and in areas with rocky or compact soils, many gravediggers figured three or four feet was deep enough.)  In some cases this was demonstrated by soil changes, for some the actual coffin outline was apparent, and for some the presence of the bones themselves showed the grave’s location.  Once this was done workers would typically place wooden stakes at the head and foot of each shaft, sometimes with nails connected by string tracing the outline of the actual shaft.  Each grave shaft would then be numbered, and its location mapped in, and surveying teams would try to match up the graves to the existing maps (if any).
     Now it was time to actually dig up the graves.  The excavators, typically divided into two or three person teams, dug with shovels and discarded the dirt produced, until they encountered bone.  At this point, the digging team used trowels, dustpans, and brushes to completely uncover the skeleton.  Soil lying directly adjacent to the bones was then passed through quarter-inch screen to recover any bits of bone or small artifacts (such as nails or buttons) not seen during the excavation.  After the skeleton was uncovered and cleaned off as well as possible a photograph was taken of it.  (Note:  On smaller jobs, when we had more time to spend on individual graves, more photographs and drawings were done.)  Then, the bones were removed, and as they came out basic scientific data was noted about them either by a professional osteologist (bone specialist) or by the excavating team themselves, depending on the project.  This information included the body’s approximate age of death, sex, and stature, if any or all of these were possible to determine (and many times they weren’t), along with any signs of disease or injury.  The bones were placed within cardboard boxes, (sometimes wrapped in plastic bags) along with plastic bags containing the coffin nails, metal hinges, (and for some projects, pieces of the coffin itself) and any personal non-human remains found in the grave.  These boxes were then usually reburied (for one job they were cremated), typically in huge concrete burial vaults.
     Several factors often complicated this simple procedure.  Probably the worst one was water.  Many of the cemeteries had relatively high water tables, so a grave shaft was sometimes moist or even completely under water.  We would use sponges, buckets, or water pumps depending on the severity, but in some cases there was no way to remove the water and you just had to do the best you could, and hope no bones were accidentally left in the murky lake facing you.  Another common problem was soil that was heavily infested with rocks and/or compacted by heavy machinery running over it.  To get through these soils, pickaxes were necessary, which obviously increased the chances of inadvertently damaging the bones.  Other obstructions were construction related, such as  concrete light post columns or highway supports which had been carelessly punched through the grave shaft, which clearly also wreaked considerable havoc on the body inside.
     The burial practices of the time period also complicated our job.  The average grave shaft had more than one body in it (the most I heard of was seven) and frequently the coffins had rotted to a degree that sent all the bodies in the shaft into each other.  It was often difficult (sometimes impossible) to tell which bone went with which person.
     Finally, the preservation of the bodies varied tremendously.  Some were nearly pristine, with every single bone still present and firm.  Unfortunately, these were rare exceptions.  Most had suffered significant decay, and sometimes the few remaining bones were either powdery, mushy, or as thin and fragile as tissue paper.  The ribs, vertebrae (spine bones), hand bones, and foot bones were more rarely recovered, with the skull and long bones—the femur (thigh bone), tibia and fibula (lower leg bones), humerus (upper arm bone), ulna and radius (lower arm bones),  and pelvis being the most resistant to decay.  Notice that I’ve only mentioned bones so far.  Flesh was rarely found.  By far the most common organ recovered was the brain.  Other tissue remains I saw were sheets of fat (which resembled grayish globs), and probably kidneys/liver (which looked like reddish-yellow cornmeal).  Hair was rare as well, but every so often it would be recovered—sometimes entire ponytails, eyebrows, and even, disturbingly, pubic hairs.  One body in a cracked concrete vault (which really helped preserve the deceased) also had extensive skin, and ligaments.  That was one of the very few bodies that had a strong, bad odor—reminiscent of pickles, very vinegary.  And finger and toe nails were exceedingly uncommon—much to the relief of much of the crew, as many found these body parts oddly repugnant.
     Some pathologies—illnesses or injuries—leave evidence on the bones.  Although these were rare, all told we saw quite a few different injuries and conditions.  Most of the injuries seen were bone breaks, sometimes showing healing with bad settings, which must have been excruciatingly painful.  One man obviously had been hit by a large object such as a train, as practically every long bone he had showed the distinctive spiral fractures which would result from such a collision.  Another man had clearly been murdered; he had a blunt force trauma on the front of his skull, along with two gunshot wounds, also to the skull.  One of the bullets, a .32 caliber, was recovered and must have been lodged within him.
     As for diseases, tuberculosis was by far the most common one seen, with its characteristic pits in the long bones, clavicles, and vertebrae.  Several cases of syphilis were also found, including one man whose striations (bands) on his teeth revealed that he had congenital syphilis.  Another skeleton’s pelvis was extremely thick and looked like coral, indicating cancer.  Some bone abnormalities showed how a disease had been treated or identified; we saw dozens of bones, usually skulls, with straight cuts through them that indicated that they had been autopsied, and other skulls with smooth, bored holes which told us that the person had been the recipient of trepanation. 
     Skeletons with extraordinarily rare conditions were also exhumed.  Several microcephalic skulls were recovered, whose owners in pre-P.C. days were probably called, “pinheads.”  Another woman’s pelvis yielded a boney, but slightly spongy softball-sized mass which was either an ovarian tumor or a reabsorbed placenta/fetus.  And one radius with an extra “prong” was something our osteologist had never seen before.
     Several other unusual items appeared in grave shafts every now and then as well.  One grave contained a skeleton, along with a metal box which contained the cremated ashes of another person.  Most unsettling of all was the jar with a five-month-old fetus still preserved in formaldehyde.  Also strange were the tiny coffins containing nothing but an amputated limb, which seems bizarre and absurd to me.  I guess that’s the one funeral in which the, “deceased,” can give their own eulogy, and what do they say?  “My right leg was one of my closest friends, and I’ll always remember its generous nature and delightful sense of humor.”?  One cemetery had a “witch’s bottle” buried in it—a magic charm consisting of a bottle filled with nails (and sometimes, bodily substances, such as urine, feces, menstrual blood, etc).  This was usually evil magic, to break up a relationship, so the witch could steal a partner.  (And I don’t know what excuse the witch used if the victim caught them collecting waste from their outhouse!)
     Most of the burials contained no non-human remains other than coffin parts.  However, clothing was not uncommon; usually it was scraps and buttons, but occasionally certain articles were recognizable, such as a pair of pants, or a dress.  Shoes, belts, and hats, and even underwear were sometimes found as well.  Personal items were more unusual still, but we saw a variety:  jewelry such as rings, necklaces, pendants, and earrings; religious items like rosary beads, crosses, crucifixes, and saint medallions; change purses and coins; matches; shaving kits; makeup kits; military medals; a truss; pocket watches; penknives; toothbrushes; combs; bottles and jars (including embalming fluid bottles, evidently included by a lazy mortician); dentures; gold teeth; a harmonica; clay pipes; and a doll.  The rare glass eyes recovered usually caused a stir—it’s somewhat alarming to uncover a skull that appears to be staring back at you!
     The fetus account especially reminds me of a common question we got asked, and still do:  “Did it bother you to dig up dead bodies?”  I’d have to say for most of us the answer would be, “No.”  Certain things bothered some or even most of the crew a bit, like say a baby’s skeleton, or brains, or particular smells, but this seemed temporary; I can only recall a person or two who left a project early due to not being able to handle it psychologically.  Clearly, I think that people had a good idea of what to expect when they signed on for this type of job.  Also, perhaps the fact that we were basically dealing with just skeletons, and not fleshy bodies (usually) helped us to distance ourselves enough to get through the project.  And yes, we’re human—countless jokes were told throughout the projects.  The humor ranged from innocent, “Alas poor Yoric, we knew him well,” references to bad taste kidding around about necrophilia.  Possibly these were coping mechanisms, or else simply our way of passing the time.
     But all joking aside, I was offended by the circumstances which warranted the projects in the first place.  Several of them were like the movie, “Poltergeist,” in that people or organizations claimed to have moved the bodies at a previous time, but had only actually removed a handful, but every one of the headstones or grave markers.  One place in NJ had obviously been the area where a machine had torn through over 60 graves and pushed the bones in a big pile, in a scene unfortunately reminiscent of the movie, “The Killing Fields.”  Furthermore, the initial reburial spot for one of the jobs had to be abandoned because a quick inspection of the cemetery showed over a hundred pieces of human bone scattered on the surface, near the burial vaults!  Apparently the cemetery’s caretaker was blind and never mowed the lawn.  These incidents obviously show a serious lack of respect for the dead.

     So, in closing, my feelings about digging up the dead are as follows.  Certainly I think that cemeteries should be well maintained and secure against theft or vandalism.  Plus if alternate areas for the construction of buildings or roads are feasible these should be opted for instead.  Any transferal of bodies is disrespectful to a degree—I’m sure that most people don’t like the idea of having their, or their relatives’ remains exhumed, picked up, probably jostled and damaged slightly, and finally moved to what is in most cases a mass grave or burial vault, with their bones encased in a cardboard box.  However, the unfortunate reality is that in some cases alternate areas aren’t feasible, sometimes due to issues like the discovery of forgotten, unmarked grave yards after construction has begun.  In these cases, then, I think that companies and states should do what was done on the projects I’ve described—remove the bodies using all reasonable care, and rebury them in another, safe cemetery.  That said, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy cemetery projects.  Even with all the physical and emotional issues that I’ve mentioned, I still do find it interesting.  Perhaps part of this can be attributed to a certain degree of morbidity on my part.  “I never feel so alive as when I’m digging up the dead,” is one of my jokey (perhaps of questionable taste) quotes.  However, whatever the reasons, I always try to do the job as best I can, and at least limit the negative aspects of what is overall an unfortunate situation. 


  1. Really interesting.... What's the oldest site you've worked on? I'll keep this in mind if I do any archealogical themed stories...

  2. Christine--thanks for stopping by, and for your kind words. The oldest sites I've worked on were about 8,000-9,000 years old. Hopefully someday I'll be able to push that back a little, and maybe get to work on some older burials, too.