Warning: This entry contains some disturbing images toward the end of the post.

There are quite a few pictures floating around the internet that show Victorian-era graves covered with iron cages set in concrete. According to these internet sources, the cages were constructed to protect the living, just in case the dead person should turn into a vampire and try to sit up and stagger away from the grave in search of victims. Here’s one example from wikimedia:

Pinterest has a zillion repins of this zombie-cage. I can’t post the actual photo here because I can’t find the original photographer to clear permission, but it’s worth a click-through so you can see I’m not kidding about the zombie explanations.

But the vampire/zombie explanation is urban legend–and a good lesson to you if you’re a kid and don’t get why your teacher says not to believe any old fact you find online. In actual fact, such bars, known as “mortsafes,” were meant not to keep the undead from getting out, but to keep grave robbers and body snatchers from getting in. Body snatching was a serious problem in England and America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Here are a few other examples of mortsafes:

I guess you can understand why grave robbers would do what they do—a lot of wealthy people were buried with valuables, and those valuables could be sold. But why would someone want a plain, shrouded dead body?

During the heyday of bodysnatching, most of these mortsafes were found close to medical schools. Back then, nobody donated their body to science. People believed in a literal interpretation of resurrection. Your chances of entering the Kingdom of Heaven were slim to none if your body, or that of your loved one, was cut up into bits after death. So about all that was available legally to the anatomists at the medical schools were executed criminals.

But medical students needed cadavers–lots of them–to study and practice upon. So a cottage industry cropped up–people who procured freshly-dead cadavers and sold them to the medical schools.

And the medical students didn’t want any old corpses; they wanted fresh ones, that hadn’t yet decomposed (much). Not surprisingly, perhaps, some unscrupulous body procurers realized they could make even more money if they created fresh corpses themselves. Instructors at the British and American medical schools tended not to ask too many questions about where bodies came from, thereby wittingly or unwittingly sanctioning murder in order to procure enough cadavers. Alcoholics, down-and-outs, and poorhouse inhabitants, whose number may not yet have been up, began to disappear.

According to Mary Roach’s fascinating book, Stiff, The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, many churches began building “dead houses,” which were locked buildings where bodies could be left to decompose until they were in such a state that they were no longer desirable for medical study. And I’ve read several accounts where poor families left dead loved ones inside their homes until the corpse was in an advanced state of decomposition, for fear of the body being snatched and sold to anatomists by unscrupulous undertakers. (And it won’t surprise you that medical dissection labs did not operate during the warm summer months. Imagine the smell.)

Governments at last changed the laws and allowed medical schools to experiment not just on executed criminals, but also upon unclaimed bodies from hospitals, poorhouses, and prisons.


Yes, these are unnerving pictures to look at, but they do drive home the sheer number of bodies needed by medical schools (and these pictures were taken a hundred years ago). I have checked off the “organ donor” box on my driver’s license. If you’re old enough to drive, I hope you’ll consider doing the same thing. Uncomfortable as it is to think about, it’s a really important way you can help advance the cause of medical knowledge.

St Edmund’s church – barred grave photo by Evelyn Simak via Wikimedia
Mortsafe, photo by Mary and Angus Hogg, via Wikimedia
Mortsafe photo by Judy Willson via Wikimedia Commons
Mortsafe photo by Martyn Gorman via Wikimedia Commons
Department of Anatomy at Cambridge University, 1888/93, with thanks to Tuesday Johnson’s Historical Indulgences site: http://tuesday-johnson.tumblr.com/content%20sourcing
1900, Sky-lit anatomy lab at Rush Medical College, Wisconsin Historical Society with thanks to Tuesday Johnson’s Historical Indulgences http://tuesday-johnson.tumblr.com/tagged/cadavers


Julie Berry says:

I love this post. Such groovy fascinating macabre reality. I never knew about mortsafes. I’m all for advancing the cause of science, and I get it that rather unenlightened religious interpretations forced upon science this ethical/moral conundrum: to gain knowledge needed to save lives, we’re going to steal bodies and look the other way while undesirables are snuffed. It’s a real Faustian dilemma. But I have to say, it creates a conflicted loyalty in my mind. The unethical history of the trade (albeit with a highly pro-social objective) makes me feel a little uneasy about happily signing over my body to them now. Do I want to be that body on the table? Will my corpse be treated with some reasonable kind of respect? (And is it wrong for me to wish it would be?) You hear stories about medical students and body parts … A profession with such a Machiavellian past, *to which I owe my life and the lives of my loved ones many times over,* is still hard to entrust with what’s dear to me(I’m thinking of the body of one of my children, heaven forbid). Maybe that’s why organ donation, more than scientific research, feels comfortable to me. Though what good my used parts could be to anyone is highly questionable. Thanks for a stimulating post!

Sarah says:

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Julie. I highly recommend Mary Roach’s SPOOK; she feels very much the way you do–and is, from what I understand, a pretty religious person. She has done very thorough research into what actually happens to the bodies donated to science, and per your misgivings, some of it isn’t very, um, pretty. Many are used as crash dummies (cars and airplanes) for instance. But she concludes that it’s well worth it.
And for the record, I don’t believe that checking that box means you have much say in what happens to you post-death; your body goes to science/research and perhaps we’re better off not knowing the details.

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