Waking the Dead: how to steal a dead body

yaaaaaaargh!Premature burial. Body-snatching. The Resurrection men and the Sack-’em-ups. Jack O’ Lanterns and Willo the Wisps. As bizarre as these terms may sound to us now, there was a time when such phantoms haunted the nightmares of all men…

Welcome to Waking the Dead, a series of articles relating to all aspects of the netherworld and our never-ending fascination with what Shakespeare called ‘The Undiscovered Country’.
Animal rights? Human rights?
Recently, most right-thinking people were horrified when most major British media reported that a group (Animal Rights Militia) who were protesting against the notorious company Huntingdon Life-Sciences had dug up the remains of an 82 year old woman, Gladys Hammond. They exhumed her coffin and body in October 2004 from the graveyard at St Peter’s Church, Yoxall, Staffordshire in protest at the work of her son-in-law Chris Hall. He worked at Darley Oaks Farm which bred guinea pigs for use in medical experiments. Five people were eventualy arrested over the matter in March 2005. Investigations are on-going, but the lastest development has seen another five people arrested.
Most of us have no love for companies like Huntingdon Life-Sciences and others like them that use animals in their research, but only the most unfeeling bastard could fail to be disgusted by the exhumation of Gladys Hammond’s body. The actions of the the repulsive cretins in the so-called Animal rights Militia are almost beyond comprehension. The basic unspoken laws of any civilised society tell us that no-one would ever dig up a human body, for any purpose, right?
It seems inconcievable now, but not all that long ago, many European countries had a booming industry in the illegal exhumation and sale of dead bodies. The men who carried out these illegal exhumations were known as the ‘Resurrection men’ or as the ‘Sack-’em ups’ on account of the sacks that they used to transport the stolen remains.
Anatomy and robbery
As medical science evolved during the 17th and 18th centuries, private schools of anatomy sprung up all over Ireland and Britain. They were a lucrative business.
Consider the text of the following advertisement from The Dublin Weekly Journal of October 19, 1728:

A course of anatomy in all it’s branches viz:
Osteology, Myology, Angiology, Neurology,
Adenology and Enterology will be given by James
Brenan M.D., at his house on Aran Key, the 18th of
November 1728 at twelve of the clock and wiull
be continued every Monday, Wednesday and
Friday until the whole is completed, the operative
part by Peter Brenan Surgeon.
NB The charge for this course is two pistoles (£1.71)
and if any student in Physic and Chirurgery be
desirous to read anatomy and dissect they may be
instructed and accomodated at the
same place on reasonable terms.”

Then, as now, students needed anatomical material to study. But there was a problem: an antiquated law from the time of King Henry VIII made allowances for the provision of only a small number of bodies a year. In the case of Ireland’s College of Surgeons it was only four. The bodies were sourced from executions of criminals and later, for example in Edinburgh, arrangments were made with local magistrates that any unclamied bodies found in the street would pass to the anatomical schools.
But in some places, material was hard to come by. An increase in these allowances was badly needed and sought for by succesive generations of surgeons and anatomists. But their requests fell on deaf ears: hampered by ignorance, fear and mistrust of the medical sciences, they were ignored. The shortage of bodies remained and increased.
And, as always in such situations, where there is a gap in the market, there are always those willing to plug it. No matter what the risks.
The Resurrection Men
No licence was required in Great Britain (or Ireland) for opening an anatomical school. Couple this with the fact that there was no adequate provision for supplying subjects to students for anatomical purposes and you have a logical outcome. So, even though body-snatching was a serious crime, punishable by a fine and/or imprisonment, it was a lucrative enough game to convince some to run the risk of getting caught.
To put things in perspective, a body-snatcher could expect to recieve anywhere between three and six months wages for a fresh corpse. It’s impossible, of course, to know just how much money changed hands in these transactions, but contemporary records tell us that the rewards were substantial. Substantial enough to run the risk of getting caught, doing time in jail or worse still, getting killed in the process by the proverbial angry mob. But more about them in a later article.
And of course we haven’t even considered the rather obvious health and safety hazards associated with digging up a decaying corpse…
How to dig up a dead body
It’s almost three o’clock in the morning. You are at St. Kevin’s churchyard in the centre of Dublin city. The year in 1726. It’s cold, damp and a slight rain is starting to fall. But you can’t move yet. The watchman is still visible, his torchlight casting shadows across the gravestones and tombs. You have to wait. Bide your time. The arrangment was for him to dissapear at three o’clock and to give you and your friends forty undisturbed minutes. An age seems to pass. A swig of brandy to keep out the cold. Don’t stamp your feet. You don’t want to attract any attention. Glance up and down the street. Make sure that no-one is to be seen. Keep still. Wait. Gladys Hammond's grave
Eventually, after an age, the guard moves off from his hut. He leaves the gate to the churchyard open. It’s time to move. Enter the graveyard. Look around – it’s easy to spot the grave. Even in the dark. The freshly turned earth stands out against the ground. You need to work quick. There are anything between four to six feet between you and the body. Six feet long. Two feet wide. But you don’t have time to dig it all out. It would take until dawn to remove the whole mound of earth and coffin.
The Glimmerman lights his torch and keeps watch, his eyes trained on the street outside. You and your other accomplice begin to dig – at the headstone. A small incision in the earth. The width of the grave. Only a foot long. No more. Down, down. Dig down. And down. Faster now, time is running out. Try not to disturb too much of the soil. We need to clean up afterwards. There’s a sound. A thud and a scrape. You’ve hit something. It’s wooden. It’s the lid. Now you have to be fast. Be brave. Get it out. Get it out fast. You take a swing. Crack. And another. As hard as you can. Smash the lid in. Quickly now. It finally gives way, the sound wrenching the night air. Check the street. Keep going. Now comes the hard part.
Take the rope. Take the hook. Make sure that the rope is securely fastened. You don’t want to lose the hook when you split the flesh. It would be a mess to get out. Place the rag over your nose. Deep breaths. Try to breath through your nose. It’s only been a few days but the putrefaction has stared. The smell of rotting meat. Lower down the rope. Drop the hook into the hole. Gently now. As little damage as possible. Slide the hook down over the face. Under the chin. The soft spot below the jaw and above the throat. And now, gently, carefully, push. Give it a tug. Is it in? Pull again. There’s resistance. It’s in. Now, as hard as you can, all three men together, pull.
Haul and drag, pull and heave. Drag the body up through the narrow aperture. Grinding and groaning, the corpse comes up, the head emerging, twisted and bent, the hook piercing the skin below. There’s no blood. Through the darkness and the panic you can see that it’s a woman. It was a woman. The skin is white, almost like alabaster. Like a statue. The smell is almost unbearable. With one great, final heave the corpse wrenches itself from the earth, collapsing to the ground. But there’s no time to wait.
Strip the body. Get the scissors. One man takes the hair. Another gets the wrench. Starts to pull out the teeth. The hair will fetch a fine price, finally ending up on the head of a rich society lady, in her wig. The teeth will have screws drilled into them, taking their place in the mouth of those wealthy enough to buy the spare parts of others less fortunate.
No time now. Tear off the shroud. Get the sack. Shove the naked body in. Stitch it up. Now close the grave. Quickly, quickly now. Shovel in the soil. Another man loads the body onto the wheelbarrow. Throw in the shroud. Pat down the soil. Make it look like you were never there. Check the street. Cover your tracks. Quietly now.
And steal into the night.
Find out more:
St. Kevin’s Churchyard, Dublin
Donate yer corpse:
How to donate your body to medical science
by mark ryden (with help from miss. w. tod)
Waking the dead:
Full list of all articles in the Waking the Dead series

Damien DeBarra was born in the late 20th century and grew up in Dublin, Ireland. He now lives in London, England where he shares a house with four laptops, three bikes and a large collection of chairs.


  1. Weeeeee! What an exquisite article. I can’t wait for the rest of the series.
    Just to get the credits right: The artwork itself isn’t by me, but by the very talented Mr Mark Ryden – I only did the photoshopping.

  2. “but only the most unfeeling bastard could fail to be disgusted by the exhumation”
    “actions of the the repulsive cretins in the so-called Animal rights Militia are almost beyond comprehension”
    Although I do agree with most of what you say I think the high-browed liberal disgust detracts the reader from the real issue at hand. Anyway, they are dead for chrissakes 😉

  3. I can stand those Animal Rights Militia guys. They’re crazed nutters. But you have to hand it to them for originality.

  4. Activists are compelled to create an original protest and one which will draw attention: if their action makes us reconsider our whole value system then they not only succeed – they propel the human race a little further in the direction of empathic thought. Of course the suffering of a living creature is worse than the exhumation of a body. Only our unsophisticated, sentimental and romantic parts object. Of course Nanna should rest in peace – but so should Benjamin Bunny be allowed to live a dignified life.

  5. I am just wondering if a person can sale his own body for parts and reasearch before I die? The interst is not immediate but when I become unable to take care of myself that would be a good time to give it up. So tell me, can I sell my body to science or some other to an organ – tissue labutory needing such a fine human specimen.
    Ernest L. Henson

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