Something I’ve never come across before in the years of researching burial grounds and burial practices is the mortsafe...
Commonplace in the early 1800’s, most have been removed and reused so there are few examples left to see...they were literally a cage of iron railings with a top, also of iron bars, to make a new grave safe from the Resurrection Men...or body-snatchers.
All manner of ploys were put in place to prevent fresh corpses from being hastily dug up in the middle of the night...heavy slabs of stone on the coffin itself...coffins made from lead...even some made from stone. Glasnevin in Dublin was surrounded by a high wall with a watch tower placed in one corner where armed men kept vigil each night over the new graves...country churchyards employed men to patrol the grounds...and town graveyards were guarded by small groups of armed men.
It wasn’t just the whole bodies which were valuable...dentists needed fresh teeth to make dentures from and wig makers used the hair...
The poorer classes were most at risk and they could hardly afford the cost of a funeral and certainly not the price of an elaborate iron cage to enclose their last resting place. The poor were often buried in open trenches which were left uncovered until such time they were filled up with more corpses...those awaiting burials must have been a godsend to the bodysnatchers.
Remember both the medical students and their teachers were well aware of where the bodies came from...some were buried close to the medical schools...others were left outside the gates to be collected by the snatchers and probably dumped somewhere out of sight.
There was a relatively recent ‘dig’ under the herb gardens at Trinity, which revealed many skeletons showing clear evidence of having been used for dissection and as teaching specimens.
Scotland had many medical schools in the late 1700/1800’s and they devised the ‘dead-house’ where the newly dead were kept until in an advanced state of decomposition and could then be buried in safety...a decomposed corpse was useless to the medical students and their teachers.
It was the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832 which began a slow decline in the need to steal dead bodies. The Act decreed that those who died in Workhouses and Hospitals, and who weren’t claimed by relatives, could be used for dissection.
The remains of people who had been hung for a crime were still used...the condemned were told, as sentence to death by hanging was pronounced, that their bodies would then be used for anatomy lessons...apparently that fact caused more distress to some prisoners than going to the gallows.
There were still shortages of bodies though...the medical profession was gaining credibility and more and more young men wanted to become surgeons...it was also becoming less expensive to attend anatomy classes, so the field, once purely the domain of the richer upper class, was beginning to open up to the middle classes...and that meant the demand for corpses exceeded supply. The days of the ‘Resurrection Men’ weren’t really over until the end of the 1800’s.
You might of course be shuddering at the very idea of a fresh corpse being used in a medical school...and if you are, then how do you imagine medical students learn about the human body? Your nice Doctor who hands out pills learnt about the workings of the body from dissecting dead people...the difference is that nowadays you can state that you’d like your remains to be used for medical research...and enough people do so to keep even the busiest medical school supplied with corpses.
Actually, it is a rather complicated process...there are extensive forms to be filled in and so on and then your remains are returned to a named relative to arrange burial when you are no longer needed.
You don’t get a free funeral out of it!