Having written a bit about body snatchers, or ‘Resurrection Men’ as they were also known back in the 19th Century, I began looking into all the different lengths people went to in order to prevent their deceased nearest and dearest ending up sliced and diced on the anatomist’s slab.
A few years ago, my husband treated me to a trip to Edinburgh (sometimes referred to as my ‘mega ghost busting weekend’… oh, the Edinburgh Vaults – happy days…). On one of the ghost tours I dragged him on, we ended up in Greyfriars Churchyard. Our tour guide, a giant Valkyrie of a woman in Doc Martens and with a magnificent booming voice, pointed some curious coffin-shaped iron cages out to us.
“These are called mortsafes!” she bellowed at us while we huddled together in the dark graveyard, shivering with cold but intrigued by the strange items highlighted by a dozen quivering torch beams. “When your loved one died, these cages would be placed over the coffin to prevent body snatchers from stealing the corpse and selling it to anatomists!” A little shudder ran through the crowd accompanied by a few nervous smiles. Apparently, in Scotland, mortsafes have been commonly found in areas where there are medical schools nearby… funny that.
Mortsafes came in various designs, some made of stone, others made of iron comprising iron rods, padlocks and iron plates, all of which went towards making stealing bodies a very arduous task indeed. Mortsafes were usually removed once the body was sufficiently decomposed.
Of course, if your pockets weren’t deep enough to afford a cage to lock up your dead, there were other options open to you. It wasn’t unusual for fresh graves to be guarded day and night by friends and family members until enough time had passed for the corpse to go off and be of no use to grave robbers or anatomists.
The rich went in for huge slab grave stones which covered the graves over entirely, vaults and mausoleums, making life rather difficult for grave robbers. Highgate Cemetery has a vast array of such Victorian monstrosities and Friends of Highgate Cemetery offer guided tours of the older cemetery, if, like myself, you’re morbidly curious and want to see what it’s like to be dead rich.
Victorian Monstrosities – Vaults at Highgate Cemetery
If you didn’t fancy spending money on a mega mausoleum or a vast granite slab, but you were too posh to spend time lurking around your relative’s grave waiting for them to go off, you could always hire someone to do it for you! However, there was no guarantee that the man you hired wouldn’t be bribed by a body snatcher to look the other way while they excavated a big hole close by…
Some families tried mixing various items such as branches into the grave dirt to make the grave robber’s life more difficult, or they would cover the grave with stones so they could see if it had been disturbed. Unfortunately, by the time they realised the grave had been disturbed it was probably empty too.
If you want to see how the professionals went about their business, I Sell The Dead is the film for you. It’s a darkly humorous movie and involves undead things too – perfect.
©Nicola Kirk and http://www.nicolakirk.wordpress.com 2010