Monthly Archives: October 2016

Exhuming Corpses for Fun and Profit

Winged skull photo by Loren Rhoads.

Winged skull photo by Loren Rhoads.

by Paul Stansfield

Whenever I tell someone that I’m an archaeologist, the typical response is something like, “Cool. I’ve always been interested in that.” Then when I describe a common site, their eyes invariably glaze over. I certainly understand it: they’re used to seeing dramatic things like Egyptian tombs or Mayan temples on television or in National Geographic. A few projectile points or the remains of a firepit (things that contract archaeologists like myself commonly encounter) usually aren’t interesting to a layperson.

However, mention that you’ve exhumed graves and your audience usually perks up. Many people pepper you with questions. The ones that don’t ask anything usually are doing so because they find the concept revolting, but not tedious.

Burial projects aren’t that common in my line of work, but even so, in my twenty years in the field, I’ve spent over two years exhuming. The jobs have ranged from a weeklong project investigating a tiny, six-grave family cemetery to a nine-month-long job with over 4000 bodies, which required a crew of 50 to remove them. The jobs have been in the Mid-Atlantic part of the country and were fairly recent historic burials: early 1800s up to the 1960s.

For a variety of reasons, the maps and overall burial records of the cemeteries were spotty. We had only a rough idea of where grave shafts were. Excavation of the graves was almost always begun by backhoes; the machines would remove most of the soil atop the graves until the outlines of the grave shafts could be seen. (Oh, I know the expression is “six feet under” but clearly, especially in pre-backhoe days and in areas with rocky or compact soils, many gravediggers figured three or four feet was deep enough.)

In some cases, graves were revealed by soil changes; for some, the actual coffin outline was apparent. For others, the presence of bones showed the grave’s location. Workers would typically place wooden stakes at the head and foot of each shaft, sometimes with nails connected by string that traced the outline of the actual shaft. Each grave shaft would then be numbered, its location mapped, and surveying teams would try to match up the graves to the existing maps (if any).

Then it was time to actually dig up the graves. The excavators, typically divided into two- or three-person teams, dug with shovels and discarded the dirt produced, until they encountered bone. At this point, the digging team used trowels, dustpans, and brushes to completely uncover the skeleton. Soil lying directly adjacent to the bones was passed through quarter-inch screen to recover any bits of bone or small artifacts (such as nails or buttons) not seen during the excavation. After the skeleton was uncovered and cleaned off as well as possible, a photograph was taken of it. (On smaller jobs, when we had more time to spend on individual graves, more photographs and drawings were done.)

Then the bones were removed. As they came out, basic scientific data was noted about them, either by a professional osteologist (bone specialist) or by the excavating team themselves, depending on the project. This information included the body’s approximate age at death, sex, and stature, if any or all of these were possible to determine (and many times they weren’t), along with any signs of disease or injury. The bones were placed in cardboard boxes (sometimes wrapped in plastic bags), along with plastic bags containing the coffin nails, metal hinges — and for some projects, pieces of the coffin itself — and any personal non-human remains found in the grave. These boxes were then usually reburied , typically in huge concrete burial vaults. For one job, they were cremated.

Several factors often complicated this simple procedure. The worst was water. Many of the cemeteries had relatively high water tables, so a grave shaft was sometimes moist or even completely underwater. We would use sponges, buckets, or water pumps, depending on the severity, but in some cases, there was no way to remove the water. You just had to do the best you could and hope no bones were accidentally left in the murky lake facing you. Another common problem was soil heavily infested with rocks and/or compacted by heavy machinery running over it. To get through these soils, pickaxes were necessary, which obviously increased the chance of inadvertently damaging the bones. Other obstructions were construction-related, such as concrete light posts or highway supports carelessly punched through the grave shaft. Those wreaked considerable havoc on the body inside.

The burial practices of the time period also complicated our job. The average grave shaft had more than one body in it (the most I heard of was seven). Frequently, the coffins had rotted to such a degree that all the bodies tumbled into each other in the shaft. It was often difficult — sometimes impossible — to tell which bone went with which person.

Finally, the preservation of the skeletons varied tremendously. Some were nearly pristine, with every single bone still present and firm. Unfortunately, these were rare exceptions. Most had suffered significant decay. Sometimes the few remaining bones were either powdery, mushy, or thin and fragile as tissue paper. The ribs, vertebrae (spine bones), hand bones, and foot bones were more rarely recovered, with the skull and long bones—the femur (thigh bone), tibia and fibula (lower leg bones), humerus (upper arm bone), ulna and radius (lower arm bones), and pelvis being the most resistant to decay.

Notice that I’ve only mentioned bones so far. Flesh was rarely found. By far the most common organ recovered was the brain. Other tissue remains I saw were sheets of fat (which resembled grayish globs) and kidneys/liver (which looked like reddish-yellow cornmeal).

Hair was rare as well, but every so often it would be recovered—sometimes entire ponytails, eyebrows, and even, disturbingly, pubic hairs. One body in a cracked concrete vault (which really helped preserve the deceased) also had extensive skin and ligaments. That was one of the very few bodies that had a strong bad odor: reminiscent of pickles, very vinegary. And finger- and toenails were exceedingly uncommon—to the relief of much of the crew, as many found these body parts oddly repugnant.

Some pathologies—illnesses or injuries—leave evidence on the bones. Although these were rare, all told we saw quite a few different injuries and conditions. Most of the injuries were bone breaks, sometimes showing healing with bad settings, which must have been excruciating. One man obviously had been hit by a large object such as a train; practically every long bone showed the distinctive spiral fractures which would result from such a collision. Another man had clearly been murdered; he had a blunt force trauma on the front of his skull, along with two gunshot wounds, also to the skull. One of the bullets, a .32 caliber, was recovered. It must have been lodged within him.

As for diseases, tuberculosis was by far the most common one seen, with its characteristic pits in the long bones, clavicles, and vertebrae. Several cases of syphilis were also found, including one man whose striations (bands) on his teeth revealed that he had congenital syphilis. Another skeleton’s pelvis was extremely thick and looked like coral, indicating cancer. Some bone abnormalities showed how a disease had been identified; we saw dozens of bones, usually skulls, with straight cuts through them that indicated that they had been autopsied. Other skulls with smooth holes bored into them, which told us that the person had been the recipient of trepanation.

Skeletons with extraordinarily rare conditions were also exhumed. Several microcephalic skulls were recovered, whose owners in pre-PC days were probably called “pinheads.” Another woman’s pelvis yielded a bony, slightly spongy softball-sized mass: either an ovarian tumor or a reabsorbed placenta/fetus. One radius with an extra “prong” was something our osteologist had never seen before.

Several other unusual items appeared in grave shafts as well. Most unsettling of all was the jar with a five-month-old fetus still preserved in formaldehyde. One grave contained a skeleton, along with a metal box, which contained the cremated ashes of another person. Also strange were the tiny coffins containing nothing but an amputated limb, which seems bizarre and absurd to me. I guess that’s the one funeral in which the “deceased” can give their own eulogy. What do they say: “My right leg was one of my closest friends. I’ll always remember its generous nature and delightful sense of humor”? One cemetery had a “witch’s bottle” buried in it—a magic charm consisting of a bottle filled with nails (and sometimes, bodily substances, such as urine, feces, menstrual blood, etc). This was usually evil magic to break up a relationship, so the witch could steal a partner. (I don’t know what excuse the witch used if the victim caught them collecting waste from their outhouse!)

Most burials contained no non-human remains, other than coffin parts. However, clothing was not uncommon; usually it was scraps and buttons, but occasionally certain articles were recognizable, such as a pair of pants or a dress. Shoes, belts, hats, and even underwear were sometimes found. Personal items were more unusual still, but we saw a variety: rings, necklaces, pendants, and earrings; religious items like rosary beads, crosses, crucifixes, and saint medallions; change purses and coins; matches; shaving kits; makeup kits; military medals; a truss; pocket watches; penknives; toothbrushes; combs; bottles and jars (including embalming fluid bottles, evidently included by a lazy mortician); dentures; gold teeth; a harmonica; clay pipes; and a doll. The rare glass eyes recovered usually caused a stir—it’s somewhat alarming to uncover a skull that appears to be staring back at you!

A common question we got asked is “Did it bother you to dig up dead bodies?” I’d have to say that for most of us, the answer would be “No.” Certain things bothered some or even most of the crew a bit, like say, a baby’s skeleton, or brains, or particular smells, but this seemed temporary; I can only recall a person or two who left a project early due to not being able to handle it psychologically. Clearly, I think that people had a good idea of what to expect when they signed on for this type of job. Perhaps the fact that we were basically dealing with skeletons and not fleshy bodies (usually) helped us to distance ourselves enough to get through the project. And yes, we’re human—countless jokes were told throughout the projects. The humor ranged from innocent, “Alas poor Yoric, we knew him well” to references in bad taste and kidding around about necrophilia. Possibly these were coping mechanisms, or simply our way of passing the time.

All joking aside, I was offended by the circumstances which warranted the projects in the first place. Several of them were like the movie Poltergeist, in that people or organizations claimed to have moved the bodies at a previous time, but had only actually removed a handful, along with every one of the headstones or grave markers. One place in New Jersey had obviously had a machine tear through over 60 graves.  It pushed the bones into a big pile, in a scene unfortunately reminiscent of the movie The Killing Fields. Furthermore, the initial reburial spot for one of the jobs had to be abandoned because a quick inspection of the cemetery showed over a hundred pieces of human bone scattered on the surface, near the burial vaults! Apparently, the cemetery’s caretaker was blind and never mowed the lawn. These incidents show a serious lack of respect for the dead.

In closing, my feelings about digging up the dead are as follows: Certainly I think that cemeteries should be well-maintained and secure against theft or vandalism. If alternate areas for the construction of buildings or roads are feasible, these should be opted for. Any transference of bodies is disrespectful to a degree. I’m sure that most people don’t like the idea of having their — or their relatives’ — remains exhumed, picked up, probably jostled, possibly damaged slightly, and finally moved to what is in most cases a mass grave or burial vault, with their bones encased in a cardboard box.

The unfortunate reality is that, in some cases, alternate areas aren’t feasible, occasionally due to issues like the discovery of forgotten, unmarked graveyards after construction has begun. In these cases, I think that companies and states should do what was done on the projects I’ve described: remove the bodies, using all reasonable care, and rebury them in another, safe cemetery.

That said, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy these cemetery projects. Even with all the physical and emotional issues I’ve mentioned, I still do find it interesting. Perhaps part of this can be attributed to a certain degree of morbidity on my part. “I never feel so alive as when I’m digging up the dead” is one of my jokey (perhaps of questionable taste) quotes. However, I always try to do the job as best I can and limit the negative aspects of what is overall an unfortunate situation.

This essay was originally published in Morbid Curiosity #8. It’s reprinted here with Paul’s kind permission.


mt-washingtonDuring his day job as an archaeologist, Paul Stansfield does everything from finding 2000-year-old prehistoric projectile points, removing 150-year-old feces from historic outhouses, and digging up Civil War artifacts on battlefields. Otherwise, he likes to write, especially horror fiction. He’s had over 20 short stories published, in magazines such as Morbid Curiosity, Cthulhu Sex Magazine, Under the Bed, In D’tale, and The Literary Hatchet, among others. He also has stories in four horror anthologies: Undead Living (Sunbury Press), Coming Back (Thirteen O’Clock Press), Creature Stew (Papa Bear Press), and Creepy Campfire Quarterly Vol. 1 (EMP Publishing). A fifth anthology, The Prison Compendium (also from EMP Publishing) is due out this December 13, 2016. His personal blog address is His hobbies include drinking craft beer, tennis, and caring for the humongous tapeworm that lives in his intestines.


Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next couple months, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

Win a Copy of Wish You Were Here

Tell me your favorite graveyard in the comments below and win a paperback copy of Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel. I’ll pick one winner at random on Halloween.

WIshYouWereHere-coverAlmost every tourist destination has a graveyard. You go to Yosemite National Park: there’s a graveyard. You go to Maui: graveyards everywhere you look. The Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park: both graveyards. The number one tourist destination in Michigan has three cemeteries. America’s best-preserved Gold Rush ghost town has five. Gettysburg is a National Park because it has a graveyard. Some graveyards are even tourist destinations in themselves: the Old Jewish Cemetery of Prague, the colonial burying grounds of Boston, and Kennedy’s eternal flame in Arlington National Cemetery. Jim Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery ranks in the top five tourist sites of Paris.

Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel contains 35 graveyard travel essays, which visit more than 50 cemeteries, churchyards, and gravesites across the globe.

The book trailer:

Praise for Wish You Were Here:

“Lovingly researched and lushly described, Loren’s essays transport you to the graveyard, where she is quite a tour guide. Curiosity and compassion burn at the heart of these essays.”—Paula Guran, editor of Dark Echo magazine

“Rhoads is particularly adept at finding deeper meanings in what she sees, and the questions she puts to the reader about the places she visits can gently guide us in our own search for meaning in the places we encounter. If you’ve struggled to explain your love of burial grounds to others, this may be a great way to help them understand.”—LisaMary Wichowski, The Association of Graveyard Rabbits Online Journal

“Loren Rhoads started visiting cemeteries by accident. It was the start of a love affair with cemeteries that continues to this day. In Wish You Were Here, Rhoads blends history with storytelling and her photos accompany each essay.”—American Cemetery magazine

Wish You Were Here captures well why many of us find cemeteries fascinating: because of the history and stories of so many interesting people buried there!”—Richard Waterhouse, Waterhouse Symbolism Newsletter

“‘It’s good to be a card-carrying member of the Association for Gravestone Studies,’ Loren writes. I agree. After half a lifetime of guided and self-guided tours, Loren observes, ‘What I’ve learned from cemeteries is that limestone melts, marble breaks, slate slivers, and sandstone cracks.’  That is what draws some of us to graveyards.”—Christine Quigley, Quigley’s Cabinet

“With her dead-on honesty and her fascination for the dark side of life in all its complexity, Loren’s writing never fails to make me think.”—Thomas Roche, Loren’s editor at Gothic.Net

Ordering information:

Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel  was published by Western Legends Press in May 2013.  Autographed and inscribed copies can be ordered directly from me via PayPal from my bookshop. To request inscriptions, use the Contact Me form above.

Death’s Garden: So Shall You Be

loren-mason-kutna-horaI wanted to do something special to celebrate my thirty-fifth birthday. Simply going to Prague seemed enough, until Mason read me a bit from the Cadogan City Guide: “The ossuary dates from 1511, when a half-blind monk began gathering together all the bones from abolished graves and putting them in the crypt. It sounds an unenviable task, but it had a practical purpose and was the product of strange times; what’s harder to understand is why, as late as 1870, a woodcarver was hired to arrange the 40,000 sets of bones into pleasing patterns.”

I had to see that. I decided to mark my birthday among the dead.

The journey itself proved something of an adventure. Even though the city of Kutná Hora lay only seventy-odd kilometers outside Prague, no buses went there directly. We’d have to transfer in Kolín. The bus out of Prague was top of the line, complete with magazine pockets and reading lights. The second bus, from Kolín to Kutná Hora, was a good thirty years older, with worn green knit seat covers, a linoleum floor, and a pinup behind the driver’s seat of a blond German girl whose white nightie had slipped off her unusually large breasts. The bus wove down a single lane, meandering through pretty and mostly uninhabited farmland. At one point, a dump truck met us on a blind curve and the woman behind me said the Czech equivalent of “Yikes!” My thoughts exactly.

kutna-hora-chandelierAt Kutná Hora, the “station” turned out to be a collection of bus stops. The map of town, behind its yellowed plastic, had been defaced enough to be unreadable. I guessed that this burg wasn’t as big a tourist destination as I’d thought. We followed the other passengers, hoping they’d lead us toward the center of town, where we might get directions in English.

Judging from the bus line, Kutná Hora had come a long way down in the world. It began as a small mining village. In the second half of the thirteenth century, villagers discovered rich veins of silver. The Czech king took over the mines and Kutná Hora (“mining mountain” in Czech) became the second most important town in Bohemia. The Prague groschen, a silver coin circulated throughout Europe, was minted here. By the fourteenth century, five or six tons of silver were extracted per year, making the king the richest ruler in Central Europe. Eventually the silver veins tapped out and the mint closed in 1727. Since then, the town lapsed into being a peaceful backwater with some world-class medieval churches.

We walked past signs pointing toward kostnice, the ossuary. I can only read two Czech words, the other being hrbitov or cemetery. Mason and I found a tobacco shop, as the guidebook suggested, but the couple inside spoke no English. We managed to ask for a map and they gave us directions in Czech, explaining that we could walk the kilometer to Sedlec easier than waiting for the local bus. For four people who spoke no common language, we had an extremely pleasant interaction. This birthday would be the best one yet.


The modern road to Sedlec, the suburb where the ossuary is located, led past some charmless Communist apartment blocks, through grassy vacant lots, then toward a French-style cathedral. The Cistercian community at Sedlec predates the town of Kutná Hora by nearly two hundred years. Early in the twelfth century, the Burgundian monastery of Cîteaux reformed the old Benedictine monastic rule so that physical labor became an acceptable way to praise God. Since they considered active beautification of the world comparable to prayer, the monks made everything their monasteries owned and used. The Cistercian movement spread quickly across Europe. Founded in 1141, Sedlec has the oldest Cistercian monastery in the Czech Republic. You can bet that the monks were thrilled when their neighbors discovered silver.

As we neared the church, signs directed us to turn left for the ossuary. How unexpected! I’d assumed the Cistercians built their ossuary in a crypt below their cathedral.


The Plague Column in Kutna Hora.

The street turned again at a Plague Column and I knew we were in the right place. Ten years after Kutná Hora received its royal charter, thirty thousand bodies — roughly the population of London at the time — had already been buried in the Sedlec graveyard. In 1318 the Black Death increased that number immensely.


At the close of the fourteenth century, the Cistercians build a small Gothic church in the middle of their immense graveyard. Called the Church of All Saints, it had an empty crypt downstairs and a chapel above. Because the graveyard was filling so quickly, the Cistercians decided to dig up the oldest bodies and store their bones inside the church, leaving the ground outside available for new burials. This sort of exhumation occurred commonly in Medieval Europe. The Church proclaimed that, to have any hope of Heaven, the dead had to be buried in holy ground. With Papal permission, the ground part could be discarded. An ossuary in a church was still holy, even if the bones remained visible for all to see.

Only a tiny churchyard remains of the once-vast graveyard. Most of the modern monuments were high-gloss black marble engraved with names picked out in white, but a solitary granite muse stood among them. On another grave, a little girl angel kissed the cheek of a little marble boy. The strangest marker was an automobile’s steering wheel surmounted by a red star on a pole, a memento of the Soviet regime.

rhoads-steering-wheelIn 1421, Protestant troops led by Jan Hus attacked Sedlec, martyred the monks, burned the cathedral, and plundered the cemetery church. New monks arrived in 1454 to live in the monastic ruins, but the little church continued in a state near collapse until the order saved the money to renovate in 1661. Another thorough restoration and reconstruction was completed in 1870, when they rearranged the bones. Enclosed in scaffolding when we visited, the Church of All Saints looked to be about the size of a modest two-story house. In the latest remodeling of the original chapel, they seemed to be re-coppering the cupolas atop its twin spires.

When we arrived, the door to the chapel stood open. That seemed promising. The guidebook included directions for how to find someone with keys to open the place, but we appreciated not needing to track anyone down.

A large dark-haired matron sat at a table inside the door. “English?” she asked, already bored with our answer. We bought tickets for sixty Czech crowns, about two dollars. She said a photo pass cost another 30 Kc, which we gladly paid. Postcards and viewbooks and a guide to the ossuary in English covered her table. I was too excited to look at them. It had taken us nearly three hours to reach the place. I wanted to see it!

She handed us a laminated one-page explanation in English of the ossuary’s history. The graveyard had been sanctified in 1278, when Abbot Heidenreich brought a jar of dirt back from Golgotha, the hill outside Jerusalem on which Christ is said to have been crucified. With its handful of dirt, the little graveyard became the most popular resting place in Central Europe. People literally came to Sedlec to die. Corpses got carted in from hundreds of miles away. The graveyard had originally extended all the way down the block to the cathedral, but the church sold land when times were hard.

bone chalice

My photo of the bone chalice in Kutna Hora.

Above the staircase to the crypt, the bone decor began. A daisy chain of skulls, crossed bones wired beneath them, traced the arch. In alcoves on either side of the foyer stood chalices assembled from bones. Long bones from the arms formed the bases, topped with a layer of shoulder blades. Then the lacy architecture of tailbones supported a complex arrangement of smaller bones: round knobs I couldn’t identify, flat disks that might have been kneecaps, the slender bones of forearms. The bells of the cups had been shaped from thighbones and topped with skulls. It took my breath away.

As cool as the inside of a refrigerator, the relatively dark chapel didn’t smell of death, or rot, or even of mold. There wasn’t a hint of corruption in the crypt. Despite the stained and crumbling plaster on the walls, the scent seemed curiously neutral.

At the foot of the steps, the ossuary’s designer had signed his name and the date of completion in bones. Frantisek Rint had been a woodcarver before he decorated the ossuary. I wondered how he got the job. How does one train to make art of the dead?

Each corner of the crypt held a huge pyramid of bones. I suffered a momentary flicker of disappointment. With forty thousand skeletons, each with an excess of two hundred bones, I had expected to see many objects arranged from bones. But this was not a catacomb in the Parisian sense, not a labyrinth of tunnels full of bones stretching away underground. The Sedlec ossuary filled only a room. A small room. You could twirl around in the center of it and see the bones of all 40,000 people, most of them stacked in these four huge pyramids. We’d traveled halfway around the world for this?

Still, the pyramids were huge. Throughout the world, throughout history, pyramids linked heaven and earth and symbolized earthly reality governed by heavenly order. Suspended above the pyramids hung tarnished silver crowns, signifying the promise of Heaven for those who’d died as Christians.


It’s hard to get a sense of scale from this, but those are adult skulls. Extrapolate.

Small wooden signs instructed us not to touch. Like I’d want to topple that! Cages enclosed the pyramids, ornate iron bars reaching floor to ceiling. I wonder when they’d been installed to keep back the hoi polloi.

My disappointment soon passed and I reached for my camera. An eight-armed chandelier of bones blossomed in the center of the room, as fragile and delicate as lace. Who had cleaned all those bones? I wondered. Their uniform whiteness denied that they’d ever been buried in the dirt. Jawbones strung end-to-end formed loops like links of chain. The gentle slats of shoulder blades fanned out to form platters which supported skulls. The intricate architecture of tailbones provided a repeating motif. The craftsmanship that went into the chandelier stunned me. Its beauty changed me forever even as I stood there trying to make sense of it.

What inspired someone to make something like this? I’ve seen mobiles made of every bone in a cat, boiled clean and hung from filament: the mystic form of a cat. I’ve seen medical skeletons, wired together and hung from a hook bolted through their skulls. But this: skeletons scattered, disarticulated into design elements…what would possess a person to do this to the dead?

It didn’t seem sacrilegious. In fact, the overwhelming sense of the place was peaceful. Contemplative.

I wondered how the raw materials had been arranged for Rint to work from: a pile of skulls, a pile of ribs, a pile of long bones? Or did the woodcarver paw through the jumble of skeletons until — aha! — he found just the decorative object he needed? How familiar had he been with human anatomy before he began? Did he recognize what all he worked with or didn’t he spare it a thought, reducing the bones to mere sizes and shapes?

The chandelier hung maybe seven feet above our heads — low enough that it seemed you could jump up and make it swing. Candleholders perched atop the skulls, but no trace of wax marred their perfect round blankness. The Cadogan book said that, until very recently, the church used to light candles in the chandelier on November 2, All Souls’ Day — celebrated in Mexico as the Day of the Dead. A priest used to intone the requiem mass inside the charnel house. Apparently, church officials decided that the masses were “out of step with modern Catholicism,” but services are still sometimes held in the chapel. I wish I’d thought to write ahead for a schedule. That would have been something to see.

Below the chandelier rose four obelisks adorned with skulls and heavy silver sconces. Since ancient times, the obelisk has been considered the architectural materialization of a ray of light. It symbolizes the victory of light over darkness, the supremacy of God’s Heaven. Atop one of these obelisks hunkered a fat pink cherub with stubby gold wings. Its hyper-Romantic cuddliness disturbed me more than the bones did — it seemed so artificial and unnecessary, deeply out of place.

On the back of the obelisk farthest from the guard, kids had scrawled on the skulls with black felt-tips. I felt too scandalized to read the inscriptions. I can’t grasp the urge to tag a stranger’s bones. Did the graffitist feel he cheated Death? My reaction was visceral, outraged. Disrespecting the dead, to me, seemed worse than defacing the church.

Beyond the obelisks opened an alcove with a crucifix. The pallid Christ drooping there seemed drained of blood. His head lolled forward, devoid of will. His mouth hung slack. It dawned on me that this Christ was dead.

I’d read about such things, but never seen one. Although I grew up in a Presbyterian church, where the crucifix was anathema, I understand that generally crucifixes represent Christ in torment, suffering for the sins of the world. The suffering of the representative before me had ended. His spirit had moved on. Pinned to the cross like a butterfly in a museum case — what, I wondered, did this corpse of Christ signify?

He was the only flesh-clad cadaver in this cellar full of anonymous bones. However, the dead Christ wasn’t there to be worshipped. I saw no chairs in which to sit and pray, no cushion on which to kneel.

The sense was not that the mystery had been performed, but that it was yet to come. It reminded me of the Good Friday celebration I saw in Athens. The sense I had in this chapel, more than anything, was the pressure of anticipation. All these Christians died with the certainty that they would wait until the Trump of Doom sounded before they being called into the presence of God and judged worthy to enter Heaven. The idea that Grandma waits for us in Heaven is a new one: prior to the eighteenth century, everyone went to the grave to rest until the end of time and the final judgment.

At the time of my visit in 1998, the millennium bore down upon us. These dead had waited six hundred years to reach their just rewards. I wondered if the peace I felt in the chapel would change once the millennium passed without bringing the apocalypse. Would the 40,000 spirits grow restive, angry? Or would they continue to wait until God called them home? I suppose the dead are nothing if not patient.

I am not patient. I hope to be busy until the moment my death catches me. I do not want to wait in a hole in the ground, even somewhere as beautiful as the Church of All Saints, for the possibility of resurrection. If this life is all I have, then I had better get busy making the most of it. It was a sobering thought for a birthday, one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.

This was published in my book All You Need is Morbid, which is available for free on Wattpad. It was originally published in Morbid Curiosity #3.

More information on the Sedlec Ossuary is here.

Books about ossuaries on Cemetery Travel:

Memento Mori

The Empire of Death

Skulls and Skeletons


Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next couple months, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

Cemetery of the Week #149: Singapore’s Old Christian Cemetery

img_5309Old Christian Cemetery
Fort Canning Park
Founded: 1822
Closed: 1865
Number of interments: more than 600
Open: Daylight hours

In the heart of Singapore City stands Fort Canning Park, a 100-acre oasis full of trees, museums, a botanical garden, and a concert venue. Stamford Raffles built his home on the top of the hill, after he negotiated the colonization of Singapore for the British Empire. It’s now the Government House. In the 19th century, the British Army built a hospital, barracks, and an arms depot nearby, and called it Fort Canning. Part of the British army fortifications have been preserved as the Battle Box, a historical monument commemorating the British surrender of Singapore to the Japanese in World War II.

Early in the 19th century, Singapore became a major port of call for trade ships from around the world. To serve them, the Old Christian Cemetery opened in 1822. The southern half was used by the Anglican community, while the northern half served all other Christian denominations who washed up on its shores.

img_5296A high white-washed gate marked with IHS — the earliest example of Gothic Revival style in Singapore — leads into the former cemetery. These ornate gateways were designed by Captain Charles Edward Faber, superintending engineer in the Straits in the 19th century.

The cemetery filled and was closed by 1865. A century later, the graveyard had become so dilapidated and dangerous that its monuments were removed and many of them destroyed. Apparently, the bodies were left in place. More than 600 people had been buried in the old cemetery, a third of them Chinese Christians. Others came from around the world, as evidenced by surviving tombstones in German, Dutch, Thai, and other languages.

All of the legible tombstones were incorporated into a brick wall that now encircles the lawn where the cemetery used to stand. Many of their inscriptions have been painted white to make them easier to read. Others have weathered to little more than the word Memory and the hint of a Masonic emblem.

Many of the dead remembered here were sailors. Mr. John Hide, a gunner, had his stone paid for by the officers and ship’s company of the HMS Renard in 1860. Twenty-year-old Peter Parks was an able seaman who “fell from the fore topsail yard.” His stone was “erected to his memory and as a tribute to his worth by his shipmates.”

img_5308Others recorded here were spouses. One stone read, “Sacred to the Memory of Elizabeth, the affectionate wife of Geo. Gray, M.M. who departed this life on board the Allendale in Singapore Harbor.” Another remembered 22-year old Lucy, “wife of Charles Hogg of Calcutta Esquire,” and their daughter Mary Ann, “her infant child, who died on the evening of the same day.” A good number of the stones remember children.

Sometimes the longest epitaphs hint at the most interesting stories: “William Scott Esquire of Singapore, eldest son of the late James Scott Esq. of Penang, one of the first settlers of that island: born the 3rd day of May 1780 and died at Singapore, respected and beloved by all, the 18th day of December 1861.” Penang, a state in Malaysia, was settled by Westerners prior to Singapore. With so much evidence of early death in the stones around him, it’s remarkable that Scott survived for 81 years. Did he remain in the tropics his entire life? Was he sent to boarding school in England before returning to the warmer climes of his youth?

One of the stones that captured my imagination was sacred to the memory of Samuel May, “chronometer maker, who lived respected and died lamented.” Another belonged to J. Young, MM, “Wide Awake,” whose stone is graced with a Star of David and the words Requiescat in Pace. Was he Jewish or Catholic?

There’s a little information about the graveyard on the site and not much more online.  However, it is a beautiful green oasis in the midst of Singapore’s skyscrapers.



Singapore’s National Parks: Fort Canning Park

Singapore Guide to Fort Canning Park

Newspaper story from 1974: Colonial Graves to Make Way for Park

Singapore Infopedia article on the cemetery

Death’s Garden: Night of the Reaper


Woman grieving beneath a willow tree. Sacramento Old City Cemetery photograph by Loren Rhoads.

by Christopher R. Bales

The meeting room was small, crowded, and smelled like old books. Tall shelves crammed with dusty records and yellowed pamphlets surrounded the large wooden table. Old maps, posters, even a genuine turn-of-the-century embalming certificate decorated the confines. Curiously, the brick-walled room lacked windows. A few questions revealed that this place had once been a storage area for bodies awaiting burial: the perfect atmosphere for the task at hand.

This was the meeting place for hopeful participants in the “Old City Cemetery Moonlight Tour.” The event would consist of a number of graveside performances. In makeshift period costumes, with modest sound and lighting equipment, performers would reenact the lives, deaths, and mysterious occurrences of the more colorful residents buried at the historic Sacramento cemetery.

The tour coordinator sat behind his desk with a handful of notes. Stroking his silver mustache and gesturing with his long arms in true thespian fashion, he recounted graveyard tales in a distinctive baritone. The roles available for the moonlight performance were offered in a first-hand‑up‑it’s‑yours basis. As with most volunteer affairs, the turnout was small. I was only interested in one part — the chance of a lifetime — and was delighted to find the role of the Grim Reaper mine for the taking. How many opportunities does one have to play Death in a moonlit graveyard?

Armed with a small flashlight, the coordinator traversed the cemetery with long, confident strides. I followed as best I could, trying not to trip over my own feet or the gravestones of unsuspecting strangers. The flashlight’s dancing beam lit on particular tombstones as the coordinator explained my role as the Specter of Death, plot by plot. When the audience gathered in front of a grave, the narrator would take his place center stage. On his signal, I would enter from a nearby hiding place and pass an enigmatic hand across the audience. My pointed finger would end at the gravestone that was the subject of the performance at hand. After my exit, the actors would come out to start the scene. I would move to the next site and repeat the formality. The Reaper would appear only at six locations. With no lines to learn and nothing but dramatic entrances and exits, I felt confident I could survive the night.

With the spirit of Halloween in the air, I was eager for the night of the show.


Woman grieving beneath a willow tree. Sacramento Old City Cemetery photograph by Loren Rhoads.

October 26th, 1996, 5:00 p.m.

I had about an hour to prepare for the performance. The slow transformation into the Grim Reaper was strangely hypnotic. I slicked my hair tightly against my scalp. In progressive layers of gray and black face paint, I sculpted my features. My eyes became dead, black sockets. My jaw became sunken and gaunt. My brow and cheekbones pushed forward as the skull crept out from beneath my skin. Calm power entered me. I became something else. With effort, I pulled a thick black robe over my head. I adjusted the cowl and let the long sleeves slide to my wrists. Turning out the light, I opened the door a crack. The chiaroscuro effect of the light filtering into the room made my death mask seem to smolder in the soft shadows. I clutched my tall scythe and passed a hand across my reflection in the mirror.

The ride to the cemetery was surreal, a testimonial the desensitization of today’s society. No one noticed the Reaper of Death riding down the highway in a compact pickup.

A crowd was already forming at the entrance to the graveyard. I parked in a small lot across the way, took a moment to get into character, then crossed the street. I advanced through the iron gate and entered the grounds. It took a while for the spectators notice Death moving in behind them. Soon double takes and whispers had the group slowly parting, with apologetic gestures of fear, respect, or mild amusement.

One of the volunteers handed me an antique lamp. Its flickering candlelight tied off the Reaper ensemble. I quickly took my position at the first site.

After what seemed like hours spent crouching behind a bush, I saw the audience encircle the plot. Flashlights from the costumed ushers corralled them. The narrator, appropriately dressed in an old-fashioned black tie and jacket, took his place behind the podium. I emerged slowly. Somehow I’d developed a lumbering, slow-motion walk, as if my bones had become ancient. I held my lamp before me, casting the light over the assemblage as if scouting future prospects. Bright light surprised me as the ushers trained their flashlights on my face. I stopped in front of the tombstone and passed a searching finger across the crowd, making brief eye contact with those who dared to meet my gaze. More lights, this time flash photography, hit me just as my finger stopped at the face of the headstone.

I turned away slowly, grabbed my sickle from the tree where it rested, and hobbled out of the scene as the actors made their entrance.

I stayed in character as I made my way to the next plot, since the audience could see me in the distance. This was the most inspirational moment of the evening for me: moving alone through the moonlit cemetery, the sound of the performers disappearing behind me. The cold wind rustled my black robe as I strolled through the weather-etched grave markers. Using the dim light of my lantern, I stopped now and then to read a faded inscription. I felt calm and reverent, as if visiting those I’d met before (although our first encounter might have been under less than desirable circumstances). Now they knew the peace only I had the power to give them. This was fun, although a little disturbing. I’m not sure I liked that the role of Death came so naturally to me.

The last stop on the tour was one of the most impressive plots in the Old City Cemetery. It was a large mausoleum, resting place of a mother and son. Through small panels of glass, the two caskets could be viewed.

As I moved behind the crypt to my hiding place, I was startled by a hooded figure. She was cloaked in black velvet. Her gloved hands cupped a perfect red rose. Head bowed, she whispered to herself as if in prayer — one of the performers meditating over her lines, I thought. She was playing the mother buried in the mausoleum. The son died first and, apparently, his mother was obsessed with visiting the gravesite. When she died, she was laid to rest in the same mausoleum.

I chose not to disturb the actress. I set my lantern at my feet, leaned against my scythe, and waited for the narrator’s signal.

I made my usual enigmatic entrance and exit, then moved down the short stairs of the mausoleum. It was the final performance and I felt a certain amount of relief. As I passed the outskirts of the spectators lining the walkway, I heard my only heckling of the evening. It was a rather rude sound, a feeble, unimaginative attempt to break my stone‑faced character. I stopped in my tracks and tightened my grip on the scythe. I wanted to slowly turn, searching out the insolent mortal with my cold dead eyes, to offer him a premature ride to the black abyss. Only a fool would belittle the personification of Death on His own hallowed ground.

But the performers had begun to recite their lines. So as not to interfere with the proceedings, I moved on, deciding to leave it as a moment of whimsy. Maybe next year’s performance will allow me to reap my revenge.

This piece originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #2. Learn more about the Old City Cemetery here.



Christopher R. Bales is an artist, author, and occasional Death impersonator.  Please check out his work at

From his about page: “It seems cheap to pigeonhole assemblage artist Christopher Bales’s work as merely steampunk: His aesthetic is older than that. Although he sometimes uses antique and vintage materials associated with the genre, such as metal cogs, the final product often looks more like an altar constructed from the rubble of a pre-Victorian cathedral.

“Bales, who has been assembling these intricate sculptures since 1989, said he sources “an enormous amount of objects”—like broken wooden boxes, dolls, clocks, picture frames, figurines—from his weekly visits to flea markets and thrift stores.”


Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next couple months, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.