The Slate Gist


This week, the Pentagon ordered the opening of Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknowns to remove the remains of a soldier killed in the Vietnam War and submit them to DNA tests to recover his identity. This is the latest in a spate of high-profile exhumations. Celebrities exhumed in the 1990s include Czar Nicholas II, outlaw Jesse James, civil rights martyr Medgar Evers, and President Zachary Taylor. Some historians carp that conspiracy-minded publicity hounds perpetuate this fad, rudely disturbing the dead. How do exhumations work? What do religion and law have to say about them? Why do we now have so many?

Since the 1920s, it has been standard practice for American morticians to embalm corpses, to disinfect them so decomposition is delayed. (For a cross-cultural study of embalming techniques, click.) Even with most embalmed bodies, however, the flesh eventually dehydrates and crumbles and is devoured by bacteria. (One alleged origin of “ghost stories”: Several breeds of bacteria, especially wood fungi, which feast on corpses, are luminous in the dark.) The longevity of a cadaver’s flesh and innards depends largely on the embalming, the casket (hermetic ones preserve better), the decedent’s diet (certain bacteria thrive on fat), and the warmth of the ground (a good freeze kills off bacteria).

Here are the most common reasons for exhumation: DNA extractions to settle paternity suits; criminal investigations; relocation to familial cemetery plots; and accidental discoveries–e.g., when a construction worker stumbles across an unmarked grave.

Attitudes toward exhumation vary wildly. Some Native American tribes assert the body’s spirit lives on and that to disturb a corpse is to disturb the spirit’s life. Both Jews and Muslims take nearly as strong positions against disinterment. By tradition, Jews require funerals to take place within 24 hours of death, with members of the community keeping vigil over the body until it goes in the ground. Exhumation is allowed only when a body is to be reburied with family or in Israel. Christians have a more liberal exhumation policy. The Catholic and Protestant churches say bodies shouldn’t be disturbed, if possible. However, upon canonization, saints have frequently been disinterred so their remains can be dismembered and turned into relics. And in the past, exhumation has been ex post facto punishment for heresies. The classic example is the corpse of the corrupt Pope Formosus (816-896), which was exhumed and dragged through the streets of Rome. (Although his remains were reburied, subsequent popes had Formosus’ body disinterred and further mutilated.)

U.S. laws governing exhumation remain vague and disparate, varying from state to state. Most state regulations derive from English common law. Oddly, the common law prohibits the theft of items from a grave–shrouds, clothing, etc.–but is silent on the theft or removal of bodies themselves. This was a matter left to the church. (Only in the mid-19th century, when snatching corpses for medical experiments became endemic, did states pass laws prohibiting cadaver theft.) Generally, citizens can apply to their state’s attorney general for permission to exhume family members for any reason, and requests for reburial are usually automatically granted. And the state can exhume a body when it deems a death suspicious and improperly investigated. Many questions–what if family members disagree on exhumation, and what if the dead person has no relatives?–remain to be hashed out in the courts.

Pathologists say the number of exhumations skyrocketed in the 1980s and then increased even more in the ‘90s. Click for a list of recent and proposed celebrity exhumations. Why the trend?

1 Scientific Advances: Forensic pathology, the use of science to solve crime, has improved dramatically, particularly with the development of new DNA tests. Until 1995, DNA tests required fresh samples from very specific body parts–e.g., strands of hair that include roots–that tend to decay quickly. Now, virtually any remaining body part–a bone, a tooth–will do. The difference: Where old DNA tests required a sample from the nucleus of a cell, the new tests work off sturdier mitochondria–the energy-producing material that surrounds a nucleus. Although the FBI considers mitochondrial DNA tests virtually infallible, many anthropologists doubt their accuracy. (In the case of the Unknown Soldier, DNA for his remains will be matched against DNA from the blood of people the military suspects are related to him.)

Other new techniques include the use of computer animation to construct images of faces, based on surviving jawbones and teeth, as well as information gleaned from DNA about hair color. Previously, dental records had been the primary means of identifying unknown cadavers. (Forensic legend has Paul Revere first utilizing this technique during the Revolutionary War.)

2 Transitions to Democracy: With the collapse of Latin American dictatorships in the early ‘90s, human rights workers tracked down mass graves containing the regimes’ victims. In Chile, more than 900 victims of ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime have been dug up and identified. Confronted with evidence of mass graves, Pinochet remarked that they represented a “great savings of cemetery space.” Similar exhumations of mass graves in Bosnia and Rwanda are intended to obtain evidence that will convict war criminals.

In Eastern Europe, exhumed bodies have been used as symbols by political parties, as anthropologist Katherine Verdery explains in her forthcoming book, The Political Lives of Dead Bodies in the Postsocialist Transformation. For instance, liberal reform parties have disinterred Communist leaders from their mausoleums while reburying pre-Communist nationalist heroes in elaborate sarcophagi. In Serbia, President Slobodan Milosevic sanctioned the removal in 1987 of the body of Serbian hero Czar Lazar, killed 600 years before by Turks at the Battle of Kosovo, so it could be paraded around Slovenia and Croatia in a display of Serb power.

3 Claims of Conspiracy: Many recent and proposed exhumations have sought to prove that elites and historians have conspired to withhold the truth about murders and assassinations. Was Ron Brown murdered? Is Lee Harvey Oswald in his grave or in Russia? Did Meriwether Lewis really commit suicide, as historians claim? It’s conceivable that some of these allegations are true, and there’s no harm in checking them out, as long as the decedent’s family agrees to participate. But these sorts of exhumations have a track record of turning up nothing. An exhumation of Lee Harvey Oswald’s grave found Lee Harvey Oswald.

4 Corpse Fetish: Some anthropologists say the technology is new but the impulse is old. We are heirs to the inexplicable pagan obsession with corpses.

If you missed the sidebar on embalming techniques and their cultural significance through the ages, click. For a list of recent and proposed exhumations, click.