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Exhumation

Exhumation

Cemeteries exist as "resting places," and the norm of many cultures is that the dead should not be disturbed. However, for a variety of reasons, they are disturbed through the process of exhumation (removal of a corpse from the earth). Many early groups placed the corpse in the ground and exhumed it at a later date for religious rituals, a practice still undertaken by some traditional societies. In fourteenth-century France, "it became common procedure to dig up the more or less dried-out bones in the older graves in order to make room for new ones" (Ariès 1982, p. 54). The high death rate from the European plagues coupled with a desire to be buried in already-full church cemeteries led to old bones being exhumed so that new bodies could be placed in the graves.

In times past, on rare occasions prior to embalming, the body was removed from the ground. This happened when burial professionals or the authorities suspected that the person might have been buried alive. The French philosopher and death expert Philippe Ariès discussed necrophiliacs who disinterred dead bodies for sexual purposes and scientists who dug up corpses to conduct scientific experiments. It is common knowledge that for centuries until cadavers were legally provided, medical schools exhumed dead bodies for teaching purposes. One of the reasons the use of the wake was enacted in many societies was to deter those who might steal corpses.

In contemporary America corpses are disinterred when there is a need to identify a body or to establish cause of death like in the case of suspected homicide. For example, 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. In addition, archaeological investigations often involve exhumation.

Under modern law, courts usually do not allow exhumation unless there are substantial and compelling reasons to do so. 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." Three general principles govern the law of disinterment in the United States. First, it is presumed that a "decently buried" body should remain undisturbed where it was placed unless good reason is given to do so. Second, disinterment is considered the private concern of the immediate family and the cemetery. Third, 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. California Labor Code stipulates that if it is suspected that a person has died as a result of injuries sustained in the course of his employment, the investigating appeals board may require an autopsy and, if necessary, the exhumation of the body for the purposes of autopsy. However, in accordance with the rules of equity, the close relatives can, if they wish, prevent the state (i.e., California) from either exhuming the body or performing the autopsy.

Scientists have long sought to understand life in early civilizations through the excavation of burial grounds and exhumation of human remains. In the United States the attempt to understand early cultures led to the exhumation of the remains of Native Americans, many of which ended up in the nation's museums and archaeology labs. In an attempt to prevent the desecration of Native American graves, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was introduced in Congress in July 1990 and subsequently passed into law. The bill states that any human remains and objects found on federal or tribal lands after the date of enactment are to be considered owned or controlled by lineal descendants, the tribe on whose land it was found, the tribe having the closest cultural affiliation, or the tribe which aboriginally occupied the area. Anyone who discovers items covered by the bill must cease his or her activity, notify the federal land manager responsible and the appropriate tribe, and make a reasonable effort to protect the items. Anyone who violates the provisions of the bill may be fined, imprisoned not more than one year, or both. The penalty may increase to five years for a second violation. The act further states that all federal agencies and museums receiving federal funds that have control over any of the items covered in the bill are to, within five years, inventory and identify the items, notify the affected tribes, and make arrangements to return such items if the appropriate tribe made a request. If an item was acquired with the consent of the tribe or if the item was part of a scientific study which was expected to be of major benefit to the country, the request for repatriation (i.e., return) could be denied.

See also: Autopsy; Cemeteries and Cemetery Reform; Charnel Houses; Forensic Medicine; Human Remains; Native American Religion

Bibliography

Ariès, Philippe. The Hour of Our Death. New York: Vintage Books, 1982.

Crissman, James K. Death and Dying in Central Appalachia. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

Internet Resources

California Labor Code. "Section 5700-5710." In the Dr. Reynoso Chiropractic and Sports Therapy [web site]. Available from www.drreynoso.com/info/laborcode/labor_code__section_5700.htm

Dougherty v. Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust Company, 282 Md. 617, 387 A 2d.244 (1978). In the Gorman and Williams [web site]. Available from www.gandwlaw.com/articles/booth_brf.html.

"Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act." In the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies [web site]. Available from http://web.cast.uark.edu/other/nps/nagpra/.

JAMES K. CRISSMAN ALFRED R. MARTIN

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Exhumation

Exhumation

Exhumation is the removal of a body from a grave. It is a relatively rare occurrence and can be distressing for relatives. The most common reason for exhumation is need or desire to move the body to a different location. 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. However, some cases of exhumation occur because there is a request from a court to carry out or repeat an autopsy to gain new forensic evidence . This is more likely in countries where the autopsy rate is low. With cremation becoming increasingly common, exhumation is less important than in previous years.

Requirements vary from place to place, but it is usually necessary to obtain a license from the local or higher authorities to perform an exhumation. It is also usual to get the permission of the family of the deceased. The procedure is not without risk to public health, so an environmental health officer is usually present. If the body is buried in consecrated ground, it will be also necessary to obtain permission from the church. Obtaining the necessary licenses may sometimes be time-consuming, and it is also very unusual to perform exhumations on people only recently buried.

The environmental health officer, or equivalent, will ensure that the correct grave is opened. If the grave cannot be identified, the exhumation is not carried out and nor is it if the body lies underneath another body which is not to be exhumed. In other words, anything that interferes with the respect due to the body to be exhumed or others buried on the site will be a reason to refuse permission for the exhumation. Proceedings must be carried out in daylight and are planned for a time of day to ensure maximum privacy; the area involved is usually screened. Protective and disposable masks, gowns, and gloves are worn by all involved to protect from any possibility of transmission of disease. Those concerned will take every care to show respect to the corpse. A medical officer should be present and will examine the body before it is moved and take photographs. This is important because bones may become brittle after they have been buried for some time and may break when moved. The body is usually transferred into a new casket made of timber lined with zinc for security. Pieces of the old casket are transferred, along with the body, to the new casket. The area of exhumation is then thoroughly disinfected. The body is then transferred to its destination as quickly as possible.

There may have been some decomposition so any autopsy will need to be performed promptly. The results will rarely be as good as those from an autopsy on a fresh body. However, an autopsy on an exhumed body can still yield some useful information. Although the procedure of performing an autopsy on an exhumed body is basically the same as that for a fresh body, decomposition may mean some modification is necessary. There may be worms or insects present in the corpse, but they should not be sprayed with insecticide or other chemicals as this interferes with tests on the body. There may also be a strong odor when the body is opened, and the investigators might wear gauze masks dipped in potassium permanganate to minimize exposure to particulate matter in the air. Sometimes only bones are left in the grave if the body has been buried for some time. It is the usual practice to boil the bones before autopsy. They can still yield useful information about cause of death . However, autopsy on an exhumed body is generally a task for a skilled and experienced pathologist.

Should poisoning be thought to be a factor in the death of the person involved, samples of soil from above, below, and to the sides of the coffin should be taken and sent for toxicological analysis . A control sample would also be taken from another part of the cemetery. Many exhumation cases have involved investigation of possible arsenic poisoning, a less common cause of murder these days. Arsenic remains in the body for a long time, so it can be detected after burial. For example, it was long held by some historians that the twelfth President of the United States, Zachary Taylor, died from arsenic poisoning rather than by natural causes. Exhumation took place 141 years after his death. Extremely sensitive tests showed that levels of arsenic in his body were normal; poisoning was not involved in his death. Other exhumation cases have, however, proved the opposite. It is particularly important to take soil samples in the case of arsenic poisoning for comparison. Otherwise it is not possible to know if arsenic entered the body from the soil or by poisoning.

see also Anthropology; Autopsy; Decomposition; Skeletal analysis; Toxicology; War forensics.

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exhume

ex·hume / igˈz(y)oōm; ekˈs(y)oōm/ • v. [tr.] dig out (something buried, esp. a corpse) from the ground. ∎  (usu. be exhumed) Geol. expose (a land surface) that was formerly buried. DERIVATIVES: ex·hu·ma·tion / ˌegz(y)oōˈmāshən; ˌeks(h)yoō-/ n.

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"exhume." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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exhume

exhume XVIII (once XV). — F. exhumer — medL. exhumāre, f. EX-1 + humus ground.
So exhumation XVIII (once XV).

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"exhume." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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exhume

exhumeabloom, assume, backroom, bloom, Blum, boom, broom, brume, combe, consume, doom, entomb, exhume, flume, foredoom, fume, gloom, groom, Hume, illume, inhume, Khartoum, khoum, loom, neume, perfume, plume, presume, resume, rheum, room, spume, subsume, tomb, vroom, whom, womb, zoom •catacomb • heirloom • broadloom •taproom • guardroom • staffroom •darkroom • classroom • bathroom •bedroom, headroom •legroom • restroom •dayroom, playroom •saleroom • stateroom • salesroom •tearoom • green room • sickroom •anteroom • bridegroom • stockroom •strongroom • box room • washroom •storeroom • boardroom • ballroom •courtroom • houseroom • showroom •cloakroom • elbow room •poolroom, schoolroom •newsroom •gunroom, sunroom •mushroom • common room •workroom • hecatomb • vacuum •legume • volume • costume •Leverhulme

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