Reasons for Exhumation

If a cemetery is an eternal resting place, why would anyone want to remove a body from its grave? In one recent example, the body of preacher and funk musician James Hines, who died in 2004, was exhumed to quell rumors about his body. This man was 6-foot-7 and 300-pounds, and everyone wondered how this body could fit into a standard-sized casket. Only the top half of the lid was open during the funeral, showing Hines from the chest up.

This past April, authorities exhumed Hines’ body and found that both legs had been cut off between the ankle and calf. The South Carolina funeral board has revoked the licenses of Cave Funeral Services in Allendale, South Carolina for cutting Hines’ legs so his corpse would fit in the casket. The Board of Funeral Service also fined Michael Cave, of the funeral home, $500 and ordered him to pay $1,500 for the investigation.

Hines’ case is an odd one, but bodies have been exhumed for lesser and more important reasons. President Zachary Taylor was exhumed in 1991 to determine whether or not he had been poisoned, and the famous outlaw Jesse James’s grave was excavated to prove that it was his body in the coffin. Archaeologists exhume graves for artifacts and so do grave robbers. The French philosopher and death expert Philippe Ari├Ęs discussed necrophiliacs who disinterred dead bodies for sexual purposes and scientists who dug up corpses to conduct scientific experiments. Digging up famous people seems to be a fetish in itself.

Under current law, courts usually do not allow exhumation unless substantial and compelling reasons exist. In a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision (Dougherty v. Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust Company 1978), Justice Cardozo stated, “The dead are to rest where they have been lain unless reason of substance is brought forward for disturbing their repose.” This case was compelling, as it eventually established the decision that the dead have rights. Daniel Sperling concludes, in a book [PDF] about this case and others, that if we acknowledge the interest in one’s symbolic existence and legally protect it, not only do some interests survive a person’s death but we should also enjoy a peremptory legal power to shape in advance our symbolic existence after death.

With that said, according to the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, it is presumed that a body should remain undisturbed where it was placed unless good reason is given to do otherwise. Then, disinterment is considered the private concern of the immediate family and the cemetery. Finally, if there is disagreement among the close relatives regarding a proposal for exhumation, the matter is adjudicated by a court of equity. The court considers (in order of importance) the wishes and religious beliefs of the deceased (if these can be determined), the wishes of the spouse of the deceased, the opinions of other close relatives, and the policies and regulations of the cemetery when determining if exhumation should be allowed.

Here are some reasons for exhumation:

  • Moving the Body: This may happen if a cemetery closing or if the family buys a new burial plot or wishes to re-inter the deceased elsewhere with other family members. Single or mass exhumations may occur because of changes in political environment (see below) or when modern society ignores sacred burial grounds. While Native American exhumation has long been contested (see Indian Burial and Sacred Grounds Watch), some exhumations – such as the twenty-six Confederate sailors and marines and the remains of a three-year child, who were removed from under the floor of the Johnson Hagood Stadium (located in South Carolina) – are seen as acts of honor and good will.
  • Forensic Evidence: Required by a court to settle or open a case. 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 such as strands of hair that include roots and that tend to decay quickly. Now, virtually any remaining body part will do, such as a tooth from a corpse.
  • Transitions in Political Environments: According to Slate Magazine, in Chile, more than 900 victims of ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet‘s regime were dug up and identified in the early ’90s. 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. Also, after the Civil War, soldiers were dispatched to discover Union corpses so they bury them with honor in veterans’ cemeteries.
  • To Answer Questions: As with Hines’ family, the curious question as to how that man fit into his casket became an obsession. They probably went to the state’s Attorney General to ask permission to exhume the body, as most states and localities have specific laws about removing a body from a grave. In South Carolina, they seem to be fine about exhumation, even when it comes to horses.

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