Known as Mortsafes in Britain, already documented in the post Body Snatchers, these parallel iron bars are known as caged graves in the USA. Legends abound for the reasoning behind the ‘cages’ such as wolves digging up the recently buried, or a restraint against the undead and vampires. However, it was most likely a deterrent to body snatchers hired to provide fresh corpses to anatomists in Medical school.
Mt. Zion Graveyard, referred to locally as the Hooded Graves Cemetery, in Franklin Township, Catawissa, Columbia County, PA, contains several caged graves.
On 18 June 1852, Sarah Ann Boone died at age 22 years. A small marker carved with the initials S.A.B. identifies her grave which is protected by a cast iron cage with ogee roof and two winged eagles on the peaks (eagles symbolize salvation). A headstone reveals several details of the woman known as Sarah.
Daughter Of Lloyd Frances Thomas
Entered Into Rest
June 18, 1852
Aged 22 Years 6 Mos 9 Days
Lo! Where This Silent Marble Weeps
A Friend, A Wife, A Mother Sleeps
The image of an open bible represents resurrection through scripture, and the drapery with frills and tassels denotes mourning.
Body snatching was prevalent in the 19th century, and is often incorrectly referred to as grave robbing (stealing of personal effects from corpses.)
Prior to 1832, the only legal supply of corpses for anatomical and lecturing purposes in the UK were those sentenced to capital punishment and dissection by the courts. Demand for bodies increased with the number of new medical schools, and soon outstripped supply creating a new criminal enterprise of body snatching. It became commonplace for relatives and friends to watch over a fresh grave to prevent it from being violated.
Cast iron grates (mortsafes) were placed over coffins to protect the deceased. These grates were also placed over graves in the ground, or in the case of preventing robbery of a tomb or crypt, the mortsafe took the form of an iron fence. However, these options proved to be costly and burdensome.
In a small cemetery hidden from view, behind a wall on Old Edinburgh Road in Dalkeith, lie very old gravestones. A watch tower dating from 1824, was created specifically to guard against grave robbers and supplied with armed guards to deter body snatchers who were stealing fresh bodies to sell to Surgeon’s Hall in Edinburgh for medical experimentation.
In Edinburgh, the infamous team of Burke and Hare shirked the idea of disinterring bodies and created a fresh supply of cadavers by resorting to murder.
…and on a side note…there is a creepy tradition in Indonesia where the locals ritually exhume their ancestors’ mummified bodies every few years, dress them in a new outfit and tour them through the village before returning them to their place of rest.