Mortsafes Put a Stop to Grave Robbery

by MSO
An iron cage-like device used to surround a buried casket to stop grave robbers and body snatchers

A mortsafe from Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Designed to protect gravesites from any sort of thieving or disturbance, mortsafes were first invented in the early 1800s in Scotland. A mortsafe is similar to the design of a cage, using heavy iron and stone plates and rods as well as a padlock to ensure no one could find their way through the contraption to get to the coffin buried below. The safes were placed around coffins for an approximate time of six weeks, then removed once the body was at a certain stage of decay.

Although it seems like the reason for their demand was to put a stop to grave robbery which was prevalent at the time, the main culprits in these crimes were medical schools. Typically, anatomy schools were given the corpses of executed criminals to perform experiments on, but since these were in so few supply, groups of men called Resurrectionists were handed the task of providing bodies to the medical schools. They dug up fresh graves under the cover of darkness and handed the corpses over to anatomists for a fee.

However, many families of the deceased were upset about the bodies of their loved ones being removed from their graves without permission. This conflicted with their religious views regarding the dead, because it was believed that a complete body was needed in order to be resurrected for eternal life.

Churches purchased mortsafes and rented them to member’s families and local societies often rented them provided an annual membership fee to the society was paid.

It wasn’t until 1832 when a new Anatomy Bill was passed that the practice of grave robbing was halted. The new Bill allowed people to donate their bodies to medical science provided their family didn’t object. The medical school was then responsible for the cost of the burial. Medical schools were also given access to bodies that were unclaimed.

Today, one may still find these mortsafes abandoned within churchyards or cemeteries across the UK and a few have been restored and are displayed in museums.

Photo by: Kim Traynor –


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