Exhumation of a body can occur for a number of reasons. Victims of crime may be exhumed when the case is reopened, cemeteries may be moved to make room for new roads or buildings, or it may be part of archaeological research. Whatever the reason, it tends to be notable and highly debated. Exhuming a body is a major undertaking and depending on the infamy of the individual may be a very public act. Throughout history, famous individuals have been removed from their original graves. In the middle ages, individuals who were thought to be saints or royal remains could be exhumed in order to have relics. These relics were thought to have mystical powers to heal and bring prestige to your church. Today exhumations of famous individuals continues, though not usually for collection of relics. Often it can be done to move them to a more appropriate (or inappropriate) burial locations, determine true cause of death, or just curiosity. Here are some famous exhumations:
1. Mona Lisa: The search for the remains of Mona Lisa has been going on for the last couple years. The hope is that they will be able to determine the source of her enigmatic smile. Over the summer they thought that they had located her. They found four skeletons in a church where she is supposedly buried. However, so far none of them actually match the face from the painting. The search continues though! The question is whether this hunt for Mona Lisa allows them to disturb the burials of completely unrelated individuals… (via Huffington post)
2. Tycho Brahe: Two years, Tycho Brahe was exhumed from his grave in order to determine the cause of death for the 16th century astronomer on his 300th birthday. Mercury poisoning had been first determined to be the cause, creating a slew of theories regarding his potential murder. However, further study show it was likely a burst bladder. This cause of death fits with the longstanding story that politeness caused him to not excuse himself at a royal dinner party when nature called, and his bladder burst, killing him. (via Live Science)
3. Richard III: Remains were found underneath a car park in Leiscester, and they are thought to belong to Richard III. The search for the skeleton was done in order to help understand his life and history. They had found the church that he was said to be buried in, and a skeleton was found in the neighboring car park. While DNA tests have not yet been conducted, the battle wounded body fits with the story that he was pulled from his horse and killed in battle. (via BBC News)
4. Oliver Cromwell: The exhumation of Cromwell took place a few years after his primary burial at Westminster Abbey. He was buried as a hero in 1658, but three years later the public opinion changed. In 1661, a mob exhumed his body and posthumously executed him. His head was removed and displayed at Tyburn. It is unknown what happened to the remains following this, or if it even were his remains. (via Suite 101)
5. Charlie Chaplin: The famous comedian died in 1977, and the next year two men exhumed the body. It was held for ransom from Chaplin’s lawyer and widow, Oona Chaplin. The grave robbers were tracked down; the two men were fugitives from Poland who had hoped to make some quick money. Chaplin’s coffin was found buried in a cornfield, and they were able to return the body to its rightful burial location three months later. In order to protect Chaplin from any further disturbance, the vault he was buried in was made of reinforced concrete. (via BBC News)
6. Christopher Columbus: The famous (or perhaps infamous) explorer requested to be buried in America, however at the time there was no suitable church. So at his death in 1506, he was buried initially in Valladolid then later moved to a monastery in Seville. Finally in 1542, the body was exhumed and sent back to America, specifically Hispaniola. When Spain ceded this region to France, his body was once again exhumed and moved to Cuba to remain on Spanish land. The final move was in 1898, when Cuba declared independence. Columbus was shipped back to the Cathedral of Seville. Or so the story goes… in a Columbus monument in the Dominican Republic there is a box of bones labeled “Christopher Columbus”. (via BBC News)
So what are your thoughts? There are a number of reasons these ‘celebrities’ were exhumed. When is it ok to exhume a body and when isn’t it?
I visited the cathedral in Lima over the summer and was surprised to find the room containing Pizarro’s tomb filled with skeletal analysis posters – I guess after the mix up on the location of his remains in the 70s and 80s, they decided to channel the research towards public education. Most of the info is in Spanish, but this seems to be a pretty good source: http://infografistas.blogspot.com/2008/10/cmo-se-hizo-exhumacin-y-autopsia-de.html
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I would say that it’s not acceptable to dig people up for mere curiosity, but as I’m OK with digging up ancient burials for archaeological purposes (which is pretty much curiosity with a degree) I’m being inconsistent, and confused.