Exhumation is the process of removing interred human remains from an existing grave or mausoleum. The exhumation of a human body does not routinely occur. Moreover, exhumation is permitted only under a fairly narrow set of circumstances. 

The Exhumation Process

The first step in the exhumation process is obtaining the appropriate authority to disinter a body. The various ways in which a body can legally be exhumed are discussed in a moment.

Once legal authority to exhume a body is established, the next step is to ensure that those who need to be in attendance will be present for the exhumation. The specific reasons for an exhumation lay the groundwork for who is to be present for the actual disinterment of a body.

Immediate family members have the legal right to be present at an exhumation. With that said, oftentimes those with experience in exhumations recommend – and strongly so – that family members not attend the actual exhumation.

The process of seeing a loved one’s casket removed from the ground (or even from a mausoleum slot) can be jarring or alarming. Moreover, depending on how long and where a body has been interred, the casket may not be in sound condition. Thus, the physical removal of a casket and remains can prove to be a challenging if not troubling endeavor, particularly for family members standing by.

Generally, a funeral director is present at an exhumation if the remains are intended to be transferred to another burial location. The coroner will be on hand if the removal of a body from its place of interment is for some type of criminal investigation. Representatives of a cemetery will be on hand, nearly always overseeing the actual removal of a body from its resting place. Depending on the circumstances surrounding an exhumation, a religious official like a minister or priest may also be on hand for the process. There may be some type of memorial service associated with an exhumation and reinternment. 

Once the physical disinterment of a casket and remains is completed, the coffin is transported to another location depending on the purpose of the exhumation. The most common purposes for an exhumation are a family’s desire to rebury a loved one at a different location. Another common reason for an exhumation is because of the need to collect evidence as part of a criminal investigation. There are also occasions in which an exhumation must occur to obtain DNA from the body of a deceased person for one reason or another. Occasionally, a cemetery is forced to relocate, resulting in the need to exhume and move all bodies resting at the location.

Who Can Grant Authority for an Exhumation?

There is a reason why the location of a person’s burial is called a “final resting place.” Moving the coffin and remains of a deceased person is frowned up and discouraged. As is discussed in greater detail in a moment, a solid reason must exist for a body to be disinterred. 

The easiest way an exhumation can occur is when the immediate family of a deceased person wants to move a loved one’s remains to a different resting place. Typically, when a family makes the decision for such a move, nothing will impede it from happening.

A state or federal prosecutor or even a defense attorney can attempt to obtain a court order for an exhumation. In theory, a person involved in a criminal proceeding as the prosecutor or defense counsel can seek a court order to remove an interred body for forensic testing or an autopsy. Similarly, if a criminal investigation is ongoing, those involved are also in a position to seek a court order from a judge to have a body exhumed as part of that investigation. 

The immediate family of a deceased person does generally have the ability to approve an exhumation requested by a governmental official. That assent can allow for the avoidance of the need to obtain a court order to exhume.

Famous People Who’ve Exhumed

A number of famous people made headlines not only during their lifetimes but also because they were exhumed after their deaths. A recent example of such a desired exhumation involving a famous individual is that involving gangster John Dillinger. On an international basis, 11 of the most famous exhumations involved:

  • Abraham Lincoln
  • John Wilkes Booth
  • Lee Harvey Oswald
  • Christopher Columbus
  • Daniel Boone
  • Jesse James
  • Eva Peron
  • Zachary Taylor
  • Oliver Cromwell
  • Simon Bolivar
  • Judy Garland

The process of exhuming gangster John Dillinger began during the latter half of 2019. A nephew and niece sought the exhumation, in part to rebury Dillinger at a different location. There is also talk that these family members seek the exhumation to obtain a DNA sample from the body interred in Dillinger’s grave. A long-term theory has persisted that Dillinger is not the man buried in the grave and that Dillinger was not killed during a shootout with law enforcement. 

The cemetery in which the remains are buried objected to the exhumation, although the reason for doing so are not patently clear. The family ultimately obtained judicial approval for the exhumation, which is now scheduled to occur on New Year’s Eve, 2019-2020.