Yesterday a friend sent me this picture. I'd never seen anything like it and when I read the words in bold I was surprised, kinda shocked, then totally amazed. There's a coolness factor to a grave cage and the idea they were placed around graves to keep the dead trapped should they rise really intrigued me.
Why in the world had I not heard of this practice before? This is freakin' awesome! I write about zombies and so this is one of the coolest things I'd ever seen, and I wanted to know more about it.
So I started doing some digging around (unintended pun--yet cool) to find out more about the history and background of caged graves.
These iron cages are actually called MORTSAFES and date back to the early 18th century. And as cool as it sounds to think that they were used to keep the undead trapped so they couldn't eat your brains, that's just not the case for these contraptions. Darn it. It would be cool to think that even WAY back then, they had a fear and superstition of reanimation (zombies and vampires). I can totally see why people would think that Mortsafes were used for that purpose.
I mean, think about it. All through out history people had weird beliefs and ideas about things--burning people at the stake for witchcraft (big time) for one, tobacco smoke enemas for another (oh, yeah. That's a real thing). So the idea of people in the early 18th century believing in reanimation isn't crazy. You'd almost expect it.
But in this case, it isn't true. In actuality, these cages were used to prevent body snatching. It was a HUGE problem especially in areas where medical schools were prevalent (Scotland had a huge problem with body snatching).
The practice of allowing students to learn anatomy by dissecting bodies was finally allowed in the 18th century. Prior to that, they only watched teachers and instructors without having hands on experience themselves. But as soon as they were giving the go-ahead, bodies starting disappearing from graveyards like crazy. Lots and lots of bodies.
Gangs of body snatchers were "employed" to remove bodies from graves. Many of these gangs fought one another over the "cadaver trade" because it was a pretty good money making business. Many nights, the body snatchers would steal as many as 6 bodies. They would even ship bodies over sea--it was THAT great of a business. (Some gangs even started killing people just so they could get more bodies to sell).
Well, as you can imagine, it created quite an uproar among the citizens who lost the bodies of loved ones. It caused riots and fighting in the graveyards, and several men found robbing a grave were lynched on the spot. But people demanded more as the practice of body snatching worsened.
Picture source: Wikipedia
So graveyards became FORTIFIED (oh, yeah) and underwent some major changes.
Seriously, people built watch towers, they hired armed men to patrol the cemeteries (called watchmen societies--some having over 2,000 members). Many cemeteries even went so far as to use land mines and spring guns.
There were even cases in history in which family members would rig their loved ones coffin with traps that would kill anyone trying to remove the coffin. Gun powder. Kaboom!
Those families who could afford it built the metal cages or placed large stones over the graves of their loved ones. This helped to preserve the grave and deter grave robbers.(A lot of these examples of cages and devices are found near Scottish medical schools--go figure).
So as cool as it sounded that the cages were built to keep the rising dead from roaming the streets and eating us (could you imagine walking along a graveyard and seeing a zombie inside one of these cages? That just gives me the shivers) they were actually intended to keep people from getting INSIDE the graves. Not out. Darn it.
Still, the whole look of the mortesafes and idea of them is incredible.
Now if only I could convince my loved ones to put one of these over my grave, not because I fear someone would snatch my body and use it for science, but because it looks super cool (I'm a zombie writer after all) AND no one in my home town has one of these--it would be the talk of the town. Even better, if someone could have a zombie hand sticking out of the ground and holding to the bars from the inside...that would be even better.