Are There Bodies in That Cemetery?

14 Feb 2013

Genealogists, as a rule, love to spend time walking through cemeteries. Back in 2005 I was touring Europe with the chorus I sing in. One of our destinations was Prague, where we spent several days. Our hotel was right on a subway line and was located next door to two cemeteries: one Christian and one Jewish. On our last day, the bus was to depart for the airport at 10:30 a.m. I got up extra early and spent a couple of hours walking through the Christian cemetery (the Jewish one was closed for a religious holiday). When I arrived at breakfast, at 9:30 (a little damp from the early-morning rain) my friends stared at me, shook their heads, and said “You were walking around the cemetery, weren’t you?” Bagged!


Olšanské hřbitovy, the largest cemetery in Prague, taken on my humble journey that morning.


One question I always have when walking through a cemetery, is whether there are bodies under the stones. This may seem strange, but it is a serious question. Cemeteries are, of course, by definition a place where the bodies are buried. But there are a number of reasons why they may not be where you think they are, or even there at all.

A major problem in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was body snatching. Medical schools were in dire need of cadavers for education purposes. Common belief at the time was that people’s physical bodies would physically come alive again at the Resurrection, which impeded the ability of medical schools to teach. Body snatchers illegally invaded cemeteries and delivered the bodies to the schools. Some cemeteries near the schools are said to be almost entirely devoid of actual bodies under the stones.

Bodies were often legally removed. They might be disinterred and reburied elsewhere, perhaps to join loved ones buried in another cemetery or to bury a family in a larger plot elsewhere in the same burying ground. Sometimes, a stone may not have been removed when the body was disinterred.

When visiting a cemetery, look around. Are the stones in nice, neat rows? Easy to walk around? If the cemetery predates the late-nineteenth century and that is the scene in front of you, it is very possible that  the stones have been moved. Take the case of the historic Granary Burying Ground in Boston. The final resting place of notables like Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, the victims of the Boston Massacre, and even the real Mother Goose, Mary Vergoose, the Granary has always been a place of interest with many visitors. The stones in early cemeteries in New England make interesting patterns. They face different directions, in small rows, clusters, and singly. Burials in the Granary were always in more orderly rows, but renovations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have moved stones to places where there are no bodies, and bodies where there are no stones. In 2009 previously unknown crypt was formed when a tourist fell through a buried stone into a stairway leading into the crypt.