Looking for a crime? Grave-robbing by Charlotte Hunter
For me, grave-robbing used to conjure thoughts of 18th-century resurrection men prowling moonlit cemeteries for fresh corpses to sell to medical schools. Then I began research for my current work-in-progress and, to my surprise, discovered grave robbery remains a thriving crime throughout the United States.
Some of these thefts are relatively petty on the desecration scale. For example, in early 2021 two men stole three skulls from a central Florida cemetery to use in building an altar. In 2015 a Rhode Island man was convicted of stealing over 150 headstones from a veterans’ cemetery to use as flooring in his garage and backyard shed. Also in 2015, a still unknown person broke into the Berlin mausoleum of F. W. Murnau, director of the 1922 film Nosferatu, and stole his skull.
But the majority of today’s grave robbers aren’t looking to score weird trophies or cadavers (although the body-broker biz also thrives). They’re looking to score easy money with little fear of detection.
In 2000, Mary and Ernest Adams purchased a pricey scenic plot in a Maryland cemetery for their deceased son. Not long afterward they discovered their son had been secretly reburied in an inexpensive lot at the bottom of a hill, and someone else lay buried in the scenic grave. Also in Maryland, Jeanette Greene’s children buried their mother in an expensive hilltop plot. Then her headstone disappeared. The body in the hilltop plot was no longer Jeanette. Eventually her stone was found in low-priced, boggy area of the cemetery. Even worse, the body disinterred from that grave wasn’t Jeanette Greene, nor was she found in any of six nearby graves; the cemetery employees who stole her body and resold the hilltop plot hadn’t bothered to record where they put it. Jeanette’s remains are still missing.
Burr Oak Cemetery, just outside Chicago, used to be best known as the resting place of 14-year-old Emmett Till, lynched in 1955 Mississippi for supposedly offending a white woman. In 2009, a new employee practicing his backhoe skills found bones scattered throughout a fenced-off, overgrown section of the cemetery. The subsequent police investigation revealed that, during the previous four years, between 200 to 300 bodies had been disinterred, dumped into the weeds, and the graves resold, to the financial benefit of the cemetery supervisor and a few minions.
The stories go on and on. Deeds aren’t provided to purchasers or are destroyed. Plots sold multiple times to multiple people often have coffins crammed together or stacked atop each other. And records—many kept on 3×5 cards, or worse—are inaccurate or missing.
I researched state cemetery regulations, certain there must be some oversight.
Not so much.
In 2003, for example, Florida reported to the Government Accountability Office (https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-03-757.pdf ) that, of its 3,000 known cemeteries, only 173 were regulated and these were only occasionally inspected. Throughout the nation, cemeteries belonging to religious organizations, fraternal societies, or counties and municipalities are not regulated or inspected. Sometimes family members, like the Adamses and Greenes, catch the fraud, but they are the fortunate few. Most grave robbing is similar to what occurred in Burr Oak Cemetery; old graves, often located in the nicest parts of a cemetery, are unvisited and forgotten. Except by thieves, who know few will notice or care if an old headstones vanishes and a shiny, new one takes its place.
So, if you’re working on a new story and searching for crime possibilities that also push all sorts of revenge buttons, you might consider doing what I did: Dig around in cemeteries.
Which, yes, is awful. But I couldn’t resist.
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Charlotte Hunter writes middle-grade mysteries, and currently is keeping fingers and toes crossed about her agent search. She is president of the Citrus Crime Writers, central Florida’s chapter of Sisters in Crime, and is also a member of the Guppies and the Northern California chapter. She wanders in cemeteries, keeping a sharp eye out for signs of criminal activity. Also ghosts.