Why Exhume a Body -Types of Disinterments

There are two basic ways (methods) of performing disinterments. depending on the purpose. Both involve locating a burial site, opening it and bringing the remains up to the surface. The purpose of an exhumation determines the method. The “standard” method is for purposes such as moving a body from one place to another, retrieving a regular burial for another autopsy and so forth. The “archaeological” method accomplishes the same job, but, is much more time consuming.

Also, the type of burial originally made can determine the most appropriate method. Was the body buried originally in a vault or concrete box? Was it buried in a wood casket directly in the ground? Is the disinterment for the purpose of a criminal investigation? Does it involve remains that were “discovered” buried someplace they shouldn’t have been?

The answer to these questions will help to determine the method. For a typical disinterment made for the purpose of reburying the remains in another location the primary objective is to retrieve all the remains, as intact as physically possible, re-cover (close) the removal grave and then transfer the remains to the reburial location. One thing, a disinterment is seldom as clean and simple as you may have seen on TV shows – this is especially true if the deceased was not buried in a hermetically sealed vault. or is buried in an abandoned or overgrown cemetery. The basic steps are outlined below (see the article A Typical Disinterment for more details – they are very seldom “typical” though):

  • Find the location of the purposed disinterment. This involves researching records (when they are available), visiting the site, sometimes clearing overgrown areas, cross referencing the location with other known locations. If the exhumation is from an active cemetery with good records this step is relatively easy. The cemetery will be able to find the site – in fact, the cemetery will sometimes do the exhumation themselves and then turn the deceased over to us for transportation and reburial.
  • Once the anticipated location is found and marked the next step is actually performing the work. An exploratory opening is made, usually along the centerline of the grave, and continues down until something is located (usually the top of a casket, or top of a concrete box or other container). If the removal is an “archeological” type disinterment, a grid is laid out over the area and the squares are hand excavated a few nches down at a time until the target is located.
  • Once the top of a casket or burial container is located (often not exactly where it is “supposed” to be) the original exploratory trench is expanded in various directions as required until the entire top of the casket is exposed.
  • In most cases the casket is not reusable. If there is to be an effort to reuse the casket, it is necessary to cut trenches around the ends of the casket by hand and straps slid under the casket to lift it. Sometimes the ground is extremely hard clay, almost like concrete. Where the casket is in a concrete box, the box is sometimes filled with water.
  • In cases of disinterment for the purpose of reburial and the existing casket cannot practically be reused, plastic sheets may be slipped under he deceased to lift everything out intact and minimize any chance of missing anything.
  • Examination for identification may be conducted in the grave or on the surface.
  • The remains would then be placed in a new burial container for transportation.
  • Finally, the grave would be back filled and leveled out as much as possible to leave the site in the best possible condition.

The above is a more or less standard disinterment. When the burial is in a sealed vault (which usually has the name on top of it) the entire vault can be pulled for transportation to the reburial cemetery. We had a case a few years ago where all four burials were in sealed vaults (and thus identifiable without opening them), the orginating cemetery pulled them and placed them on our flatbed and all we had to do (beyond scheduling, legal notices and so on) was transport them to another cemetery in a nearby county. But most are not that easy.