Disturbing the Repose of the Dead: When and How Exhumation Occurs

Exhumation is the disinterment or removal from the ground of the remains of a deceased person previously buried. An exhumation can be undertaken for a number of reasons. With that said, absent approval by the next of kin of a deceased person, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that an exhumation should only occur for substantial or compelling reasons. As the Supreme Court has stated:

“The dead are to rest where they have been lain unless a reason of substance is brought forward for disturbing their repose.”

Most Common Reasons for an Exhumation

There are a number of more common reasons why a decision is made to exhume a body.  These are:

  • Criminal investigation
  • Medical purpose
  • DNA testing
  • Mis-buried remains
  • Re-Interment elsewhere
  • Political purposes

Criminal Investigation

One of the most common reasons for exhumation is a criminal investigation. There are two common situations in which an exhumation occurs as part of a criminal investigation.

First, an exhumation may be ordered by a court when a development of some sort has occurred in a criminal case. A determination is made that an exhumation is necessary in order to collect additional evidence which is designed to assist in bringing justice in a case.

Second, an exhumation also may occur when new evidence is found that suggests a deceased person may have been responsible for some sort of notorious crime. An exhumation is ordered by a court in hopes of bringing closure in a criminal case like a homicide.

Medical Purpose

In some instances, the purpose of an exhumation is to address some sort of medical issue. For example, records might reflect that a particular individual died under medically peculiar circumstances. As time passed, research and other developments may have developed more information relating to a particular disease or condition. This research can be further advanced if an exhumation is permitted of a person who died under circumstances that might be associated with the type of disease or condition being researched and analyzed. An exhumation would be particularly likely if doing so would have a positive impact on some sort of public health issue.

DNA Testing to Establish Paternity or Family Lineage

Another of the reasons why exhumation may be undertaken in this day and age is to establish paternity. In addition, exhumation may also occur to determine familial relationships more broadly and beyond paternity.

A couple of years ago one of the most famous painters in modern times was exhumed for the purposes of establishing paternity. Painter Salvador Dali was exhumed by order of a judge when a Spanish woman claimed she was the mains daughter.

Mis-buried Remains

Throughout history, another reason why exhumation has occurred is to get a person correctly buried where he or she is intended to rest. For a myriad of different reasons, there are instances in which a person is laid to rest in the wrong grave.

An example of a historical figure that ended up exhumed and reburied is Nicolaus Copernicus. The man initially was buried in 1542. His tomb was improperly marked. Finally, in 2005, Copernicus’ remains were exhumed and he was appropriately buried in a suitably designated grave.

In this day and age, when remains are mis-buried it usually is because of a mistake by a funeral home or cemetery. Simply, a person is buried in the wrong grave. In the alternative, there may have been a “mix up” or misidentification or bodies at a funeral home.

Re-Interment Elsewhere

There are instances in which a decision is made to reintern the remains of a deceased person at another location. For example, there are instances in which an existing cemetery needs to be closed or moved for one reason or another. In the alternative, family members of a deceased person may desire to reinter the remains of a loved one in a different cemetery where other relatives will be interred.

Political Purposes

Finally, time and again throughout the course of recorded history, remains have been exhumed and reburied for what fairly can be called political reasons. For example, exhumation occurred to allow for the removal of the remains of a deceased former leader from a particular cemetery when a new regime took over a government.

The bizarre tale of former Argentine First Lady Eva “Evita” Peron is a more modern example of a body being exhumed and reburied for political purposes. Eva’s died at the age of 33 with many in Argentina angling for her to be declared a saint by the Catholic Church. Within a couple of years of her death, her husband was removed from the presidency in a coup.

In an attempt to prevent Peron supporters from using Eva’s body as some sort of icon to venerate, the junta that took power from her husband had her remains buried in an anonymous grave in Italy. When her husband returned to power about 20 years later, he had Eva’s remains returned to Argentina. Ultimately, Eva’s family took control of the body and had the remains re-interred permanently in a mausoleum in Buenos Aires.

The Exhumation Process

There are two pathways through which an exhumation can occur. First, a family can approve to have a body exhumed. Second, if a legal, medical, or other bona fide reason exists for an exhumation, and the family will not agree to it, a court can order the process to occur.

Depending on the underlying purpose for the exhumation, different individuals will be on hand for the opening of the grave and removal of the casket. If an exhumation is occurring as part of a criminal investigation, representatives of law enforcement and the prosecuting attorney’s office will be present. The county coroner is also likely to be present. Oftentimes a funeral director is also present.

If an exhumation is necessary to move the remains to a different location, a funeral director is likely to be the only person at the gravesite. Family members are also able to attend an exhumation. They oftentimes are discouraged from attending because there is always a level of uncertainty regarding the condition of the casket when it is removed from the ground.