Unearthing the dead

René Gapert looks at the work of a forensic anthropologist in the exhumation of human remains

Exhumations of the deceased are carried out for various reasons. Strictly speaking exhumations here refer to the excavation of a grave situated in a cemetery or churchyard and the removal of the human remains interred therein.

This can be challenging for all involved but particularly for the families of the deceased, which makes it a priority to get it done correctly from the start. Planning ahead includes the decision on what personnel/expertise is required depending on the situation of the exhumation.

An exhumation may be carried out to establish the identity of unknown remains; facilitate the relocation of the remains to another locality; permit the extraction of samples for forensic purposes as well as establish familial links (e.g. paternity testing); retrieve evidence buried with the body; remove the remains of someone awaiting sainthood and so forth.

Depending on the reason for the exhumation certain personnel are required including local council workers (grave diggers), health and safety representatives, undertakers and police.

In criminal investigations, apart from the above, it will be crucial to have human remains specialists on hand such as a forensic pathologist and forensic anthropologist. An exhumation may present with complications such as the retrieval of bodies that have undergone considerable alteration, not only due to the length of time they may have been buried but their condition before burial, i.e. burnt, disarticulated/mutilated, skeletal, communicable disease, radiation, etc.

These will have to be considered when planning an exhumation with the aim of retrieving all the remains and any materials included with the body. Another added complication would be a body in a family grave. In most cases family graves consist of multiple deceased buried on top of each other, separated by a small amount of soil. In most cases a maximum of three or four bodies can be accommodated in family graves either in coffins, urns or a mix of both.

A forensic anthropologist would be able to guide the investigating authorities in planning an exhumation for maximising evidence retrieval and human remains retrieval while also assessing any remains in situ as to their completeness. In cases of multiple burials in one grave the anthropologist would be able to differentiate between the remains to make sure the correct set of remains are recovered.

One aspect that often throws up questions is the reuse of older parts of cemeteries. Here, bones from previous occupants may be uncovered which had been placed in the grave fill of a new grave. These bones may prove problematic during the exhumation. Establishing if a grave was dug in an older part of the cemetery with potential for previous burials or if it was dug in virgin soil should be part of the planning process.

An exhumation should be carried out as discreetly as possible with cover provided around the grave site that will frustrate attempts by journalists and photographers to get images of any remains found. Good communication with the families of the deceased is important and keeping them up to date about the progress of the exhumation should be part of a good working standard. This obviously depends on the direction of the investigation and would have to be decided on by the SIO (Senior Investigating Officer).

Implements to screen the soil retrieved from the grave such as different sized sieves and metal detectors (if projectiles or blades are expected as part of the investigation) should be made available from the beginning. Sieves are also required to look for small bones and bone fragments such a found in the hands and feet. Particularly hand bones may be of importance as they may show defensive wounds caused by stabbings and slashings. In cases of younger individuals there are more bone parts to be retrieved than in adult remains due to the still growing and developing skeletal system. Bone centres, especially of the spine and the ends of arm and leg bones may look like pebbles rather than bones. To retrieve these, it would be crucial to have a human remains specialist on site during the exhumation.

Lastly, most coffins start to weaken and disintegrate after a certain amount of time in the soil.  How quickly this occurs depends on a variety of conditions such as the pH value of the soil at the grave site, depth of the grave, soil type (e.g. clay/loamy soil, sandy, chalky), waterlogged or dry, the wood used to make the coffin, treatment of the wood, etc. Similarly, the condition of the remains will be determined by the condition they were in when buried (embalmed/not embalmed, autopsied/not autopsied, burnt, dismembered) and if they were buried clothed, in a body bag, shroud, etc. Most coffin linings over the last 30 years include a plastic sheeting which may help in keeping a decomposed or skeletonised body together during the removal from the grave although the coffin may have disintegrated.

Dr René Gapert is a forensic anthropologist and human remains specialist. He consults for An Garda Síochána, the PSNI, Coroners, Forensic Pathologists and private families


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