Date Published: 
September, 1921
Original Author: 
L. Dewald
Supervisor of Cemeteries, Cleveland, OH
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 35th Annual Convention

The records of the American Cemetery Superintendents for the past 34 years contain many papers and addresses embracing every known topic relating to cemetery matters. It would be difficult to point out one single phase of our work which has not been taken up and thoroughly covered in writing. It is interesting, however, to note that very little has been said concerning disinterments. To write a comprehensive article on this subject would require much time and study. The following is a brief review of my own personal experience in this line of work.

One of the most common sights in any cemetery that attracts the attention of the public is the disinterring of the remains of a body which has been in the ground for some time. The sentiment of the people in regard to disturbing the repose of the dead varies much. While very many persons are unalterably opposed to disinterments because of religious or sentimental reasons others claim that the removal of the remains in a proper way to a more suitable location, while in a sense it may violate their sepulcher, wound the feelings of their kindred and disturb the memorials erected by them, under the circumstances becomes entirely proper (even as a matter of sentiment).

There are a number of reasons why so many removals are requested. At the time of death there are many people who have the remains interred in a single grave and later on purchase a lot and request us to disinter the body and remove it to the newly acquired location. Others may possess a lot insufficient for their needs and in time it may become necessary to acquire more ground or purchase a larger lot in some other part of the cemetery, or in another cemetery, to which eventually the remains will be moved. Still others are removed to be buried near their ancestors in other towns or other lands. This is especially true of the Chinese, all of whom desire to be buried near the graves of their ancestors. Such disinterments are conducted according to a venerable Chinese custom as embodied in the Book of Rites, written by the sage Confucious. A representative of the Chinese burial society, after disinterring the remains, scrapes the bones, washes and scrubs them thoroughly with soap and water after which they are placed in zinc boxes for shipment to China.

In disinterring bodies, the difficulties encountered are many. Where the body is placed in a concrete or steel case or in a metallic casket, disinterring without coming in contact with the remains is comparatively easy. However, where a casket is made of wood and other soft materials is placed in a wooden rough box, disinterring without exposing or injuring the remains is exceedingly difficult, especially so in cases where the body has been in the ground nine or ten years. Quite often the casket is only glued together, and when exposed to the air after a lapse of time in the ground will crumble to pieces when handled and brought to the surface. Some of these graves emit noxious gases when broken into for the purpose of disinterring, causing inconvenience among the men performing this gruesome task. In disinterring bodies where nothing but the bones remain, it is quite impossible to be sure whether all have been recovered. No doubt there are some who in life may have been crippled, or who may have by accident suffered the loss of a limb or some other bodily injury.

Let me mention the case of Mr. W., known to several of our members as a most unusual case. In August, 1914, application was made for the burial, upon his father's lot, of the left leg of this man, in the space which would have ordinarily been his future grave. The burial was made and in March, 1915, application was received for the burial of the right leg of Mr. W., to rest beside the one first buried. Again a burial was made; but as yet the body of Mr. W. has not gone to join his departed members. I am quite sure that the issuance of three different burial permits, at different times, and for but the one body (as it will be in this case) is most unusual. But this is a matter of interments-not disinterments and therefore but incidental to my subject.

Another case which might be listed as one of the unusual experiences of my “twenty-one years in the graveyard” was the burial made in one of our local cemeteries of the leg of Mr. B. A few days after the burial, members of Mr. B's family made application to have the leg disinterred. The reason given was that Mr. B. could not rest because his buried leg was causing him pain and he was sure that it was being tortured by the pressure of the earth. As a matter of fact, the leg had been buried directly in contact with the earth; when disinterred and re-buried in a box, Mr. B. was no longer troubled with the pain. I have often wondered how Mr. B. knew there was pressure on that buried leg. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy".

The present day epidemic (so to speak) of reputed spiritualistic phenomena reminds me of another unusual experience. Some time ago Mrs. B., a spiritualist came to me and asked where a certain Dr. T. was buried in Woodland Cemetery. I asked her if she could state approximately when he was buried. She replied that she had no knowledge of the year, but she had attended a spiritualist meeting the previous Sunday and Dr. T. had come to her and asked to have his grave mounded, as there was quite a depression in it. I summoned our yard superintendent and had him take Mrs. B. to the grave and see the condition of the same. They both returned to the office saying there was quite a depression. Mrs. B. paid the necessary amount charged for this work and the following day we mounded and sodded the grave as ordered. Several days after the work had been completed a Mrs. H., who claimed to be the owner of the lot where Dr. T. was buried, came into the office very much excited claiming some one had been buried on her lot, as there was a new mound on the lot. In looking up this complaint we discovered the new mound was the mound of Dr. T. which Mrs. B., the spiritualist had ordered made. I explained to Mrs. H. that the records showed Dr. T. had been interred there in 1855 and that she had apparently purchased the lot from a former owner, who sold the same, leaving Dr. T's remains on the lot. Mrs. H. objected very strenuously to the new mound and claimed nothing had been said about the remains on the lot at the time of purchase, and she was positive that no one was interred there. I suggested that if she would deposit the amount required to disinter, furnish a small box and re-inter in potter's field, the work could be done at once and proposed that in the event we found no remains, the money would be refunded. Mrs. H. agreed to this and we proceeded to disinter Dr. T. We found the remains, disinterred them and re-interred them in potter's field. About a week after this work had been completed, Mrs. B. came to the office very much excited and said Dr. T. had appealed to her at the Sunday night meeting saying his body had been disturbed. We explained all that had occurred and Mrs. B. went away, only to return a few days later saying the members had collected money to remove Dr. T. from the potter's field to a single grave. Again Dr. T. was disinterred and placed in a single grave. The following Sunday he appealed to Mrs. B. again saying he was not resting comfortably, that he wanted his bones placed in a larger box and laid out straight. I suggested to Mrs. B. that this would be impossible and I was sure Dr. T. was only nervous and excited on account of being disinterred twice, and he would settle down in due time and be quiet. Evidently this was the case as we have not heard from Mrs. B. since.

Bodies placed in iron, lead or other metallic caskets may be preserved for long periods and the form and features may be recognized after a considerable interval. You may remember that Hamlet when accosting the gravedigger (Hamlet, Act 5) asks him how long the body will lie in earth ere it rot; and the gravedigger's answer was that "a body should last you some eight or nine years". It is, I believe, the evidence of sextons in the present day that if a body be buried at a considerable depth, it takes eight or nine years for it to disappear. I believe the rate of disappearance depends very largely on the depth at which a body is buried. In this country bodies are almost always buried in caskets and at a considerable depth, but if a body: not enclosed in a casket, is buried in the upper layers of the earth which are full of microbes and burrowing insects it disintegrates very quickly, say in twelve months or so. In the state of Ohio it is illegal to bury a corpse at a depth of less than four feet.

The most favorable soil for decomposition is a moist, porous loam, moldy or impregnated with animal or vegetable matter. The most favorable soil for the preservation of the body is sand gravel or clay, in which moisture is deficient and the desiccation of the body is rapid. In such soil, in a deep grave, and in a hermetically sealed leaden casket, the body may long remain in remarkably good preservation. Most remarkable is the preservation of bodies buried in peat-bogs, from which they have been recovered in an excellent state after a lapse of many years.

There is no doubt whatever that the cause of death greatly influences the rapidity of decomposition. Decomposition is apt to be exceedingly quick after some of the infective fevers, including acute pneumonia. The presence of certain poisons in the body which act as antiseptics retard putrefactive changes. Instances of this sort have been seen after death from arsenic, carbolic acid and some other mineral poisons.

The bodily weight of a man is two-thirds water. We know that for decomposition to set in, a certain amount of water is necessary i.e., a certain amount of fluidity and moistness of the tissues. When death takes place in a perfectly dry atmosphere, decomposition properly so-called does not set in, and the body dries up and mummifies. True mummification consists in the rapid evaporation of the water constituents of the body. This change is favored by very high temperatures with great dryness of the atmosphere, and by atmospheric draught. In this state the soft parts are retained and the features; though distorted, are preserved and present a rusty brown color. Indeed it is highly probable that in Egypt the practice of making mummies was simply going in the direction that nature was going; a person dying in the waterless regions of Egypt could only be mummified, and the people took up the natural process and converted it into art.

It has been found that clothing resists change longer than the body. Materials composed of vegetable fibers decay first, next in order are the textile fabrics from the animal kingdom, while silk and leather are the last to be destroyed.

Considering the conditions surrounding the body, disease of which the person died, the temperature, the dryness of the air, and so forth, you will readily conceive that it is difficult to say in advance of actual disinterment what the conditions of a buried body may be. Sometimes decomposition is very rapid; sometimes it is very much delayed.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 35th Annual Convention held at Detroit, Michigan
September 13, 14 and 15, 1921