Mortsafes - Protecting The Dead


Cemeteries are packed with the remains of our loved ones. Our grandparents, our parents, our children, our friends - no matter what the relation is to you, chances are you know someone who has taken up residency in one of the many cemeteries worldwide. In many of our modern day cemeteries, the resting place of the dead are well protected. But it wasn't always that way, and grave-robbing was most certainly a thing. That's right - people would actually go into the cemeteries, dig up the dead, and leave with either the body, items the body were buried with, or both! While some may hesitate to mess with the dead in fear of a curse being put on them or being haunted by the ghost, there was surprisingly a good amount of grave-robbing going on that needed to be stopped. But it wasn't just literal robbers digging up the graves - would you have guessed that the medical community was slightly involved?!

Initially, the medical students in the United Kingdom would have access to the body of executed criminals to help study human anatomy. After execution, the body would be provided to the medical community so that it's students and scholars would be able to open, dissect, and explore the secrets of the human body. But as time went on, punishments for crimes became much less severe, and as such, the number of executions dropped significantly. With such a small number of bodies becoming available for use, a black market for bodies suddenly began to grow and authorities turned a blind eye to the activity since it was for research and the research would be used to help advance medical knowledge. There was apparently so much desire for these bodies that fights would arise in the graveyards among thieves as men were being hired to acquire bodies and sell them to medical schools. As the casket crusade continued to grow, so did a need for a way to protect the loved ones. And so, around 1816, the use of the mortsafe became a growing trend in cemeteries, many of them being used in Scotland.

The actual design the mortsafe varied - however the one constant throughout was the weight. Mortsafes could have been made of metals or stones, but it was essential that they all had weight, as that was what provided the mortsafe with the ability to keep grave-robbers out. Beneath the ground, the grave would be dug and the coffin placed in, a plate would be put on top of it. The plate would have holds in it, and iron rods would slide into these holes. Then the top plate would be placed on top of the rods, which would quite literally cage the coffin inside. These cages would help make it a lot more difficult for thieves to be able to get to a coffin, if at all. It may have seemed like overkill, but before this type of cage system, thieves would dig a hole a good distance away from the grave site, and dig horizontally to get to the coffin, instead of digging right above in, which would hopefully lessen the chances of being caught by cemetery guards or security. The cage system no longer allowed for this sneaky plan to go down as easily as it previously had.

Mortsafes were made in a way that two keys would be needed to fully remove the guard from the grave. This was an added on feature to ensure the security of the mortsafe was upheld. And since the mortsafe was able to be removed, they were able to be reused from grave site to grave site. The initial coffin would be buried in the mortsafe, and after about 6 weeks, the coffin and the body inside would be in such bad condition that they would be useless to the medical students. So once this happens, the mortsafe could be removed and move onto its next temporary home.

The rise and fall of the mortsafe scene came rather quickly, as the Anatomy Act of 1832 gave anatomy students the right to claim any unclaimed bodies that would turn up. In addition, people began donating their bodies after death to help the pursuit of anatomy studies and further the medical fields findings. With medical schools once again able to provide bodies for the students, the mortsafe became obsolete since grave-robbing came to a halt.

Very few mortsafes can still be found today, laying around the cemeteries and rusting away. Some are even being used around cities as decorative pieces and just became a part of the scenery. Regardless, it's fascinating how these seemingly ancient pieces of death culture history came and went, but they did their job well and served their purpose to help protect the ones we love most.


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