Rob Hardy: "Digging up the Dead"

August 31, 2010 10:05:00 AM

Rob Hardy - [email protected]


There is something different about a person after the person dies. The once-living flesh rots away, and turns into dust which is made up of elements that are no different from elements everywhere else.  


There's nothing inherently special about that particular dust from bodies, but humans have made no secret of valuing it; it plays upon our deepest thoughts and fears of what it is to be human, and what it is to be human no more. So we commemorate the dust of the departed with ceremonies, as we inter the dust into the surrounding non-body dust, and if the dust came from someone important, we have more elaborate civic or religious ceremonies. And if the person was really important, we dig up the person's dust again and move it around until we think the dust is in a place that befits the dust's importance. We might even do this more than once.  


Those are the stories in "Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials" (University of Chicago Press) by historian Michael Kammen. It is peculiar that the phenomenon of exhumation and reburial has happened often enough (even looking only at American examples) that the patterns can be studied and even classified as to the reasons for reburial, which Kammen has in different chapters sorted as being for the purpose of patriotism, nationalism, tourism, race, and others.  


The stories are often, of course, morbid, and are often very funny, and Kammen is a good storyteller. He wants us to consider larger themes that contrast American exhumation patterns with European ones, because of different factors such as America never having had a strong socialist tradition and Europeans fiercely reburying because of anti-clericalism or anti-fascism (or pro-fascism). Those themes may be a little murky, but the entertainment and educational value of Kammen's book is in the stories of the dusts themselves. 


Sometime the bodies don't get dug up. George Washington wanted to rest in peace at his beloved Mount Vernon. The wishes of the dead themselves are not always considered (this is one of the lessons in Kammen's book), and at the time of Washington's centennial in 1832 there was a clamor in Congress to have his body moved to the crypt below the rotunda of the Capitol. Only a court battle waged by Washington's descendants allowed the remains to stay where they were.  


President James Monroe died in New York in 1831 and was buried there. His home state, Virginia, had a resurgence of pride in her Founding Fathers in the mid-nineteenth century, and Virginians called him home in 1858. He was reburied with full ceremony in Richmond; Richmond, too, had been a proposed resting place for Washington as well, but he really had asked to stay where he was. The body of another president, though of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, was not in much demand before his death; the North had understandably little interest in the man and he reminded the South of its defeat. But when his body became a corpse in 1889, Davis's timing was perfect.  


There was nostalgia in the South for its glorious attempt at independence, and New Orleans was happy to have him interred there in the city of his death. No less than six Southern cities, however, fought to have his remains. Montgomery, Ala., for instance, had a claim because that is where Davis had assumed his presidency. The family, however, eventually decided that Davis should go to Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, into the Hollywood Cemetery there (it was a time when cemeteries were glad to get celebrities because they attracted tourists and new occupants). New Orleans felt slighted, and proposed that if Davis was leaving, they would still put up a huge monument to him, but the finances were not put forward to make it happen. 


A couple of patriots had bizarre and unwanted moves of their bodies. Tom Paine was buried in New Rochelle, N.Y., on his own farm; he had wanted to be buried in a Quaker cemetery, but his deistic anti-biblical treatise "The Age of Reason" nixed that. A British journalist, once Paine's foe in print, dug up the bones and stole them off to England.  


When the thief died bankrupt, the bones got scattered so that for some bones there were merely stories of their fates; perhaps some of them were made into buttons, maybe some got into an anatomy school, and who knows what happened to the others. Maybe some even made it back to New Rochelle.  


Lincoln's body, too, was stolen, or it was almost, by grave robbers who wanted a ransom. Their plot was foiled, and the caretaker of Lincoln's monument in Springfield removed the body from the appointed sarcophagus and buried it in a secret, undistinguished place. It was eventually removed by Lincoln's son, to be buried at the monument in a cage of steel beneath tons of cement in 1901, where it has been secure ever since. There were still vandals, but they had to satisfy themselves with smashing up the empty sarcophagus and taking bits away as souvenirs. 


Abolitionist John Brown was hanged in Virginia in 1859, and put into a pecan coffin. He was not buried there, but the coffin was placed on a train to New York for the gratification of abolitionists who viewed Brown as a martyr.  


He wasn't exactly exhumed; he was merely transferred to a coffin of Northern make, because mourners thought he ought not to be in one of Southern. Robert Ingersoll, who had made his name with his jubilant agnosticism and debates against reverends, was cremated. His ashes remained in an urn on his wife's mantel until she died in 1923, when her ashes joined his at the home of their daughter. Ingersoll had been a gallant colonel in the Civil War, and was entitled to burial in Arlington Cemetery. This privilege was resisted by those who resented his poking fun and logic at their Christian beliefs, but eventually, reluctantly, they gave him a soldier's burial.  


D.H. Lawrence was supposed to be buried in New Mexico, but the body had to be moved from Venice. The man in charge of transporting it thought cremation would make it all easier, and may have decided that moving an empty urn would be even easier still, so it might be that once the empty urn got to the US it was refilled with ashes from someone's fireplace.  


Among the most bizarre of stories here is that of Daniel Boone, the frontiersman and politician who died in 1820 in Missouri. He had lived many years in Kentucky, though, and the Kentucky legislature decided after a couple of decades that he should come on home.  


Boone, however, had deliberately kept himself out of the state since leaving it in a snit in 1799, so he would not have been in favor of the move. The Kentuckians got Boone's family to approve a removal of the body, and off it went for obsequies and for a good tourist site. Missouri wanted the same benefit from tourism and was peeved. And then the stories started that the Kentuckians had been deliberately misled to the wrong remains, and that Boone still rested where he had been planted originally. And no one really knows where he is to this day. 


Boone's plight shows a pattern of many of these stories; "Did we get the right body?" is a question that could not be definitely answered at the time of removal, and cannot be answered afterwards. Those who strove to put a body into a more fitting place were often poking around in poorly marked graveyards to begin with, and didn't have the benefit of forensic science.  


Nonetheless, they were not deterred. The warrior who needed to be brought home from the battlefield, the statesman who was needed to boost civic pride, the patriot who was called upon to increase the value of his new cemetery home, the poet who was put into service to bring tourists to a town -- these dead are all in some fashion servants of the living, servants who didn't have the good fortune to be buried in the right place for their service the first time.  


Kammen's often witty and always erudite look at our useful dead is an odd and unique view of part of American hist

Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]