Caging The Dead

Contrary to popular belief, cages over graves were not to keep the dead from leaving them, they were to keep people out. And, by people, I mean grave robbers – sometimes going by more alluring titles such as Resurrectionists or Night Doctors.

I have a whole post planned surrounding the vampire craze that swept the nation pre-1900s but to summarise, in the past folk used to be so scared of their loved ones rising from their graves, as ravished blood fiends, that they would go to great lengths to prevent it from happening. Some bodies were dug up and the corpse would have their head chopped off and the whole thing burned, coffins would be nailed shut and rocks would be shoved in mouths – the latter could also be a myth but I have yet to research that far. But for now, let’s assume it’s true.

Some folk today also believe that families paid to have cages put over their dead relations grave to keep them from rising and terrorising the locals. However, it is known that bodies were well sort after during the Victorian era and prior. Medical schools would buy them in order to study the human body up close. Imagine that, you bury your uncle and arrive at school a week later to see him on the operating table surrounded by a bunch of students, including yourself. So, to prevent this, cages were placed around graves.

Logierait Mortsafes | Perthshire | Scotland | Source: The Vintage News via Google

These are also known as ‘mortsafes’ and started appearing around the year 1816. They’re made from iron (sometimes combined with stone) and came in two forms. Either like the ones seen in the photo above, or more flat against the grave, like they’d been slid over the top. They were complex contraptions of rods and plates, and were padlocked together. In order to remove them one would need two people with two separate keys.

Not all of them were left to sit atop the graves for eternity though; after about six weeks, when the body would have sufficiently decayed, they were removed and stored away ready for the next victim of death. Some parishes had two or three on hand, ready for when a local passed.

Mortsafe in Greyfriars Kirkyard | Edinburgh | Source: Wikipedia

Some churches also bought them and hired them out. Societies formed that also bought mortsafes and would charge non-members for their use. There were also societies that would watch over graves, but even in these instances, graves were still violated and bodies snatched. Poor families often had to watch the graves themselves on a night, if they wanted their dead relation to remain in it.

I’ve enjoyed digging further into this topic as I was once a believer that they were more so to do with the vampire craze. Maybe there was the odd instance where someone decided to use one for such a purpose, but I have yet to complete my research on vampires throughout history. So for now, it remains a mystery.

I could go on longer about mortsafes but I wish to keep these posts concise and more of a simple summary of my findings. However, if you wish to read more on the topic then click here and find a section on mortsafes in an article, from 1897, within The Hospital, a British medical journal. It makes for some interesting reading.

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