Death is Never Over: Life, Death, and Grave Robbery in a Historic Cemetery Open Access
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The anthropology of death rituals describes various relationships among the three points of a triangle formed by the corpse, the soul, and the survivors. This structure, first proposed by Robert Hertz in 1907 and adapted many times since then, is useful for comparing seemingly disparate death rituals across cultures. Using this structure, the relative emphasis of one leg of the triangle over another can help clarify the needs a living community prioritizes upon the death of one of its members. I argue one leg of this triangle, the connection between the survivor and the corpse, deserves a longer period of examination. For the past two hundred plus years in the U.S., the overwhelming majority of dead bodies have been buried in a cemetery. But burial does not sever the connection between the survivor and corpse; the corpse is still there, and the living can choose to acknowledge that fact by visiting the cemetery. Founded in 1807, Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. was originally a burial ground for white Christian elites. It came of age in the rural cemetery movement of the early nineteenth century, which encouraged the living to seek out the romantic melancholy evoked by the serene presence of death in a beautiful cemetery. Today Congressional Cemetery is still an active burial ground, now open to everyone. It is once again beautiful, and well-visited by people seeking a connection with those buried there. But over the two hundred years of Congressional Cemetery's history, the connection between the living and the dead there went through several changes. With this thesis, I set out to examine how the connection between the survivors and the corpse evolved in the community of Congressional Cemetery from 1807 to the present. I have found that this connection crystallizes in times when the accepted balance is upset by a grave robbery. Three grave robberies are examined in detail. The first is the theft of the body of 24-year-old Alvina Cheek in 1889. Her entire corpse was stolen by `body snatchers', men who sold fresh cadavers to medical schools for dissection. The second is the theft of the skull of William Wirt some time in the early to mid twentieth century. His skull ended up in the hands of a skull collector. The most recent theft involved stealing skulls, long bones, and patellae from the White family vault in 1991. These bones were probably stolen for use in some kind of occult ritual. I argue that the cemetery circumstances that allowed these graves to be robbed and the living community's reaction to the thefts serve as a documented snapshot of the survivors' attitudes towards the corpse. Viewed together, the grave robberies at Congressional Cemetery illuminate the changing balance between the living and the dead in the cemetery community as it progresses through the twentieth century and into the future.