Thanatological Crime: Some Conceptual Notes on Offenses Against the Dead as a Neglected Form of Deviant Behavior

Clifton D Bryant. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

Students of crime and deviancy have explored a diverse array of such behavior and examined it within a wide variety of interpretive contexts and institutional settings. Some examples of such diversity might include the various forms of occupational crime—”workplace deviance” (Bryant 1974) “white-collar” (Geis 1968; Johnson and Douglas 1978), “blue-collar” (Horning 1970), “blue-coat” (Stoddard 1968), and “khaki-collar” (Bryant 1979)—as well as deviancy constituent to different social institutions such as government (Simon 2002; Douglas and Johnson 1977; Erman and Lundman 1978), religion (Bryant 2002; Carden and Pelton 1976), family (Bryant and Wells 1973), and sports (Bryant 1991), to mention several. The vagaries of sexual deviancy have been extensively studied, as have most conventional forms of crime. In recent years, even unconventional and overlooked configurations of crime and deviant behavior have been “discovered” and reported in detail. Among such subjects of crime and deviancy have been rural crime (Carter et al. 1982), marine crime (Bryant and Shoemaker 1975; Mueller and Adler 1985), and zoological crime (Bryant and Palmer 1976). Few areas of deviant social behavior have been ignored, overlooked, or neglected, with perhaps, a few significant exceptions, one of which is particularly glaring in its omission. Curiously, sociologists have tended to almost completely disregard deviance against the dead—”thanatological crime,” as it were.

Thanatological Crime

Offenses against the dead may well be one of the most universal of human deviant behavioral configurations. Almost all human societies, past and present, as well as primitive, folk, and advanced, have elaborate prescriptive and proscriptive normative systems and taboos regarding the dead. Such norms and taboos range from whether or not a deceased individual’s name may be spoken after his or her death to the prespecified and appropriate disposition of the property of the deceased, and from how the living are to relate to the dead to the type of propitiations appropriate to the appeasement of the dead. Hoebel (1958) reports, for example, that

among Eskimos, as with many other people, [the] name of the dead is tabooed, lest it summon the reappearance of the ghost. Later, the name is given to a newborn child, reincarnating the name soul of the deceased ancestor. (P. 548)

Similarly, the Arunta of Australia do not refer to a dead person by name during the mourning period, and close relatives never do so again (Service 1963:23). Norms concerning the dead may specify required funeralization practices, type of body disposal, and traditional mourning behavior. Component to all such normative systems are strong taboos concerning mistreatment of, or offenses against, the dead, with attendant severe sanctions. The sanctions for such offenses may emanate from spirits or humans, depending on the culture. The Zunis of the Southwest United States, as an illustration, believe that the Katcinas (the spirits of the dead) would punish any person who attempted to impersonate them in masks during the dance ceremonies (cited in Ember and Ember 1973:426). The violations of the taboos and the more serious of such norms would seem to constitute “thanatological crime.”

Of all criminal offenses and deviance, offenses against the dead and deviant behavior related to the dead appear to be the most socially repugnant and reprehensible. This holds true as a generality and is usually also the case within categories of deviant behavior (i.e., all other things being equal, the theft of an item of equal value is a more reprehensible offense when the victim is a corpse than if the victim is alive). Given the highly emotional intensity of taboos relating to the dead and the elaborate cultural values underlying the normative systems that govern the treatment of the dead, it is difficult to image that such norms and taboos would be violated. Yet violations of the thanatological norms and taboos are not infrequent in many societies. A detailed investigation of such behavior might well provide new insights and understandings concerning the contexts and circumstances that surround the breaking of any deeply institutionalized and severely sanctioned norms. This discussion attempts to provide a beginning of such an investigation and in this regard offers a preliminary conceptualization of thanatological crime and deviancy with the hope that this paradigm will afford a better research focus on such phenomena in the future.

A Paradigm of Thanatological Crime

Offenses against the dead would seem to be bifurcated into two major categories or divisions in terms of the pattern of victimization. In one such pattern, the deceased individual is directly the victim of the offense, with the body often being the direct object of the criminal act. In the second pattern, the dead are used in a strategy for victimizing the living, and thus the dead become covictims in such conspiratorial efforts.

Symbolic Victimization of the Dead

Some might argue that the dead cannot be victimized because they have no awareness and thus no sensibilities or feelings. Assuming a disbelief in spirits, ghosts, and a heaven or afterlife, this is essentially true. In most societies, including our own, however, the dead do “live on,” even if symbolically. We may refrain from certain behavior because “Aunt Mary would roll over in her grave if we engaged in it.” From the symbolic interaction standpoint, if we manage to keep the dead “alive,” even if in memory and reputation only, then they are alive. Edwin S. Shneidman (1976) alludes to this in his essay on the death certificate when he observes,

The impact of the death certificate is considerable. It holds a mirror to our mores, it reflects some of our deepest taboos; it can directly affect the fate and fortune of a family, touching both its affluence and its mental health; it can enhance or degrade the reputation of the decedent and set its stamp on his [or her] post self career. (P. 241)

That final phrase, “post self career,” makes the point that the dead do have a symbolic existence and, through this existence, can be victimized. In some ways, the question of the dead being victimized is similar to the question of whether people are victimized when something is stolen from them but they are never aware of the theft.

It is possible to assert that the living essentially are converted into inanimate objects when they are deceased, inasmuch as sensibilities and feelings cease. It is also the case, however, that practically all societies project some degree of animation on the deceased individual. Although in our society we do not believe in ghosts per se, nevertheless we do apparently assume some symbolic vitality on the part of the deceased, as witness our concern with “pleasing” the dead in terms of funeral arrangements (“so-and-so” would like this hymn or the view from that cemetery lot). We also appear to devote an inordinate amount of time and energy to symbolic communication between the living and the dead. The mechanisms of communication might include “In Memoriam” notices in the newspapers directly addressing the deceased person; various kinds of prayers, supplications, and other kinds of mourning behavior rather personally directed to the deceased; and our postterminal interaction with the dead at the bedside of the deceased or in cemeteries (for a detailed overview of so-called death messages see Bryant 1976). In short, in this society, the dead are assigned a quasi-social identity.

It is in the area of law, perhaps, that the stronger argument can best be made that the dead represent something other than inanimate objects. Inanimate objects can be owned, but bodies cannot exactly be owned because under the law, the dead constitute social entities and enjoy certain “rights.” Bernard (1966) relates that from the time of Sir Edward Coke, the English jurist (of Tudor and Stuart times), it was held by the courts that “dead bodies are not ‘property,’ not having intrinsic value or being articles of commerce” (p. 12). This legal posture led to the curious situation of not being able “to regard a corpse as a subject of larceny.” If someone disinterred and took a corpse from its grave, that person could be charged with the theft of the things buried with the corpse (i.e., the grave clothes) or even with trespassing or vandalism by the one who owned the land containing the grave. Thus, although the disturbance of, or the removal of a body from, the grave was viewed as a repugnant and despicable act, there was little legal recourse, because of the way in which the body was conceptualized.

Over the centuries, and especially in the United States, however, the law concerning bodies took a slightly different direction. The questions of death and body disposal in earlier and less complicated agrarian settings created little legal debate. As the United States moved toward its industrial and urban destiny, however, such questions posed increasingly complex legal issues and generated intense disputational dialogue. In this regard, Bernard (1966) cites Justice Joseph Henry Lumpkin of the Georgia Supreme Court, who emphasized that

the law touching death and its immediate incidents involves the weighing of many diverse interests— those of the deceased himself, as far as they are known to the living [italics added]; the surviving spouse or next of kin, if any; and society as a whole as represented by public authorities, and as its wishes respecting the dead are expressed in statute, decision law, and custom. (Pp. xi-xii)

In this connection, Bernard (1966) cites one authority who has summed up the legal rights that exist in a dead body as

  1. the right to a “Christian burial,” and
  2. the right (in the survivor) to select the place of burial.

The first right has less reference to religious rituals than to “a burial comporting with the prevailing sense of decency in the community” (p. 15). The second right refers to the precedence that includes the “wishes of the deceased,” “the wishes of the surviving spouse,” other kinsmen, the “executor of administrator of the estate,” and “the person under whose roof a death occurs, or the master of a vessel when a passenger or member of the ship’s company dies” (p. 16). There are, of course, circumstances that might temper or modify these rules of preference. There is also the implicit legal doctrine that recognizes the right of the dead to “silent and undisturbed repose” (p. 4). In the instance of the former, in recent years there have been several cases that attracted widespread attention, where persons kept and displayed human bodies for entertainment or profit (i.e., owners of carnival shows who displayed preserved fetuses in bottles, called “pickled punks,” and funeral directors who kept dried, embalmed bodies about the premises for years as “tourist attractions” or “novelties”; in these particular cases, law enforcement authorities finally forced these individuals to provide decent burials for the bodies).

The rights of the dead body, and of the next of kin, might well in some cases, however, be assigned a lower priority than that of society. As Bernard (1966) phrases it,

As between the interests of the dead in silent and undisturbed repose and the interests of the living in material growth and progress of the country—its cities, its defense, and its public works—the interest of the living prevail. No cemetery is immune to the laws of eminent domain, although in the case of national cemeteries, there is little practical likelihood of displacement. (P. 4)

Nor does this mean that the rights of the dead are necessarily assigned the very lowest priority. Again, quoting Bernard (1966), he observes that “courts…have traditionally frowned on needless shifting of corpses from one resting place to another, in so doing reflecting a strongly held public and social aversion to disturbing the dead” (p. 11). The interests of all parties, living and dead, must be protected and adjudicated where necessary. Finally, as Bernard (1966) summarizes it, “The law does not lightly sanction or order the disinterment and reinterment of the dead, but will endeavor to resolve the interests of the different parties (the deceased, the survivors, and the public) as equitably as possible” (p. 4).

Using the Dead to Victimize the Living

In some crimes against the dead, however, the body of the deceased individual (or individuals) is often used as part of a social mechanism to victimize others. The dead are victimized, but this is secondary to the intent of the offender who seeks primarily to harm, intimidate, or extort other living persons, perhaps relatives or other survivors of the deceased or some larger group of significant others. There are, of course, more detailed elaborations and subtler divisions of deviant behaviors within these two larger categories—crime against the deceased and using the deceased in a crime against others.

Motivational Modes

A second dimension of the thanatological crime paradigm addresses the motivational factor. Although the etiological processes constituent to deviant behavior are often complex, if not convoluted, and do not generally lend themselves to overly simplistic interpretation, there are some instances in which the motivational aspects of certain patterns of socially proscribed behavior are relatively apparent and can be categorically circumscribed and appropriately labeled. Thanatological crime may be an instance of such behavior. Generally speaking, thanatological crime appears to be based on four variations or modes of motivational inducements: (a) functional/instrumental, (b) malicious mischief/amusement, (c) profit/economic advantage, and (d) pathological/compulsive. Each motivational mode can be operationally defined for purposes of this exposition. Examples of criminal behavior in relation to these modes are given in a later section.

Functional/Instrumental Motivational Mode

Certain death-related criminal or deviant acts are purposeful, rational, and functional beyond, or in disregard of, economic gain, but such behavior may still violate conventional social norms, the standards of community propriety, or even legal statutes. Such errant behaviors are usually instrumental in intent and serve to aid in facilitating or accomplishing a variety of individual or group goals. Not infrequently, thanatological crime or deviancy that results from this type of motivation is often the product of cultural conflict, the juxtaposition of value systems of differential priority, or a rationalizing interpretive context. It may also result from situations of emergency, compelling need, and/or extremely pressing traditional mandate.

Malicious Mischief/Amusement Motivational Mode

Some proscribed acts, even those related to the dead, are committed because they are “fun.” As Riemer (1981:39) points out, deviance is sometimes frivolous and flippant and thus for fun or amusement. Such behavior, he asserts, may be a “spontaneous ‘just for the hell of it’ activity,” and, accordingly should be viewed within a “hedonistic ‘pleasure of the moment'” context. The “choice to violate normative standards” is simply “an enjoyable and exciting alternative.” A variety of deviant behaviors, including vandalism, some forms of theft, certain patterns of proscribed sexual activity, and even some offenses against the dead may result from a desire for excitement, new experiences, adventure, or fun and amusement, even if the “mischief” is socially defined as malicious.

Profit/Economic Advantage Motivational Mode

A significant proportion of deviant behavior is patently motivated by a desire for profit or economic advantage. As Willie “The Actor” Sutton, the infamous bank robber, when asked why he robbed banks, so charmingly put it, he robbed banks, “because that’s where the money is.” Ours is a materialistic society with a capitalistic economy, and our cultural value system stresses wealth, acquisition, and affluence. When the means to such cultural goals are not available through prescribed and licit mechanisms, some individuals will seek them through illicit and deviant acts. Even activities relating to the dead are not beyond the pale of deviant behavior in pursuit of economic gain. The materialistic bent would appear to help facilitate and rationalize the most repugnant deviant acts, even offenses against the dead.

Pathological/Compulsive Motivational Mode

Some forms of deviant behavior are irrational and aberrant and are pathologically motivated. Such behavior may be the result of temporary loss of self-control, such as in the instance of overindulgence of alcohol or drugs or so-called temporary insanity when the individual may be unaware of his or her circumstances and actions for a short period of time. Pathological behavior may also result from more permanent mental or judgmental disability, such as mental retardation, paresis, brain damage, or psychosis. The major characteristic of this motivational mode is that it departs so significantly from what is considered normal and rational that it is socially interpreted as aberration, degeneracy, or even subhuman behavior. Offenses against the dead and the deliberate violation of norms related to the dead are frequently regarded as pathological inasmuch as it is felt that no prudent and rational thinking individual would commit such loathsome acts.

The Conceptual Matrix

The intersection of these two coordinates of deviancy related to the dead suggests a typological model of thanatological crime with eight categorical cells to circumscribe distinctive configurations of behavior in terms of the cross-classification of motivation and victimization. Typical behavior for each cell in the model will be discussed briefly by way of illustration and to demonstrate how context may sometimes redefine the situation so as to precipitate and rationalize such deviant

Victimization of the Dead

Functional/Instrumental Motivational Mode

In this category of offense against the dead, there is often physical victimization of the body. Although the dead feel no pain, practically all societies place great emphasis on the appropriate treatment of the dead. The desecration of the dead is almost universally condemned as morally depraved and reprehensible behavior. To desecrate the dead is symbolically to attack the very fabric of society itself; it is a contravention of the component value system and is the very embodiment of inhumanity. It represents deviant behavior of a most odious and abhorred variety and is usually severally sanctioned. In the United States, as well as in most other countries, it is a serious legal offense to desecrate or otherwise harm a dead body. Nevertheless, the dead body may be physically victimized in a number of ways that are often rational and functional. In 2001, it was revealed that many years earlier, American and British atomic scientists, in the process of investigating strontium-90 buildup in humans as a result of atomic fallout, had unethically, if not illegally, acquired the bones of dead children from 26 different countries and cities around the world. There was no evidence that relatives of the deceased children gave consent for the use of the bones in the research investigation (see Goncalves 2001).

Quite recently, it was reported that a group representing 700 Irish families was suing doctors, hospitals, and public health authorities in Ireland for psychological distress and breach of contract. It was discovered that a hospital had gathered and sold the pituitary glands from dead children to a pharmaceutical house to use in a research project (“Group Sues Irish Hospitals” 2001).

Some years ago, it was discovered that the state medical examiner in Florida had provided the brains of executed prisoners for a research project without permission from either the death row inmates or their families (Tofani 1985).

It might even be argued that the practice of grave robbing in the 1800s to provide bodies to medical schools for students to dissect was very functional and instrumental for the medical community, even if profit driven for the grave robbers.

Cannibalism. One such instance of instrumental desecration of a dead body in advanced societies is cannibalism. Cannibalism was reported in the sieges of both Lenningrad and Stalingrad in Russia during World War II. To survive, some individuals ate parts of dead bodies. For a detailed exposition on cannibalism, historical and contemporary see Hogg (n.d.). Perhaps one of the best-known examples of cannibalism is that of the ill-fated Donner Party. In the winter of 1846-47, a group of California-bound families became snow bound in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. When they ran out of food, they were forced to eat the bodies of those members of the group who had died from hunger and the cold. When the group was found and the vivid evidence of cannibalism was discovered, the rescuers and the public were horrified and outraged by such behavior. Some survivors were socially stigmatized, and there was even a genre of sick humor about the Donner Party that resulted and has persisted until this day. Not only was cannibalism seen as a moral outrage by the public at that time, but even those members of the Donner Party who had committed the act reported that they had experienced a sense of revulsion at the time, even though they were starving. Some of the survivors were burdened with guilt and distress for the rest of their lives (for detailed historical accounts of this tragic episode, see Steward 1936 and McGlashan 1947). Because of the circumstances, there were no efforts at legal prosecution for cannibalism, however. One of the survivors, Alferd Packer, admitted that he had eaten the flesh of his dead comrades but denied he had killed them. He was, however, subsequently tried and convicted of murder, but the verdict was later overturned on a technicality. Several years later, he was convicted on several counts of manslaughter. In recent years, some of the Donner party bodies were exhumed and the forensic evidence suggested that Packer was, in fact, guilty of murder (“Bones Back Beastly Tale” 1989).

A more recent instance of cannibalism among “civilized” persons is that of a crash of a Uruguayan Air Force plane in the Andes in 1972. The survivors of the crash, including members of a rugby team, some friends and relatives, and the crew, were stranded for several weeks. After 20 days, their food gave out and they had to eat the flesh of some of their companions who had died in the crash. When they were rescued, the press sensationalized their behavior, and there was worldwide controversy concerning the behavior of the survivors in eating human flesh. The survivors themselves were emotionally shaken by what they had done, as well as by the physical trauma of their ordeal. The Catholic Church officially defined what had happened as morally justified, but public reaction was mixed (see Read 1974; “Cannibalism on the Cordillera” 1973). Again, there was no attempt to legally sanction the offenders.

Yet another well-documented instance of cannibalism is that of the sailing yacht Mignonette, which floundered in a storm in the South Atlantic in 1884. Four of the crew survived the storm but only three individuals were rescued. The fourth had been murdered and eaten. Two were tried for murder and sentenced to death. The crime was made more horrible by the cannibalism (see Simpson 1985).

Desecration of Dead Bodies. Dead bodies may be desecrated to obtain military trophies. Many primitive groups retained parts of the bodies of enemies they had killed in battle to use as utilitarian household items. Skulls might be used as canoe balers, or bones as needles or flutes, for example. Japanese Samurai, in medieval Japan, collected the heads of vanquished enemies, and American Indians took scalps. Military personnel in more modern times continue to desecrate the bodies of enemy soldiers to obtain trophies. Throughout history, soldiers have routinely defiled enemy bodies to obtain “souvenirs.” In the Spanish Civil War, Moorish troops sometimes castrated or otherwise mutilated enemy bodies. In World War II, some American GIs collected teeth and ears, in addition to clothing and belongings, from the bodies of dead Japanese soldiers. In Vietnam, American soldiers were sometimes found dead, tied up, and castrated with their penises cut off. The Americans, in turn, sometimes collected strings of enemy ears and hung them from their armored personnel carriers. Such behavior was in clear violation of military regulations and various treaties concerning the treatment of enemy dead and prisoners of war, but war often redefines the situation. In combat, defilement of the body, inadvertently or deliberately, is often inevitable but is viewed as illegal, barbaric, and unmilitary (for a comprehensive discussion of desecration of the dead in military context, see Bryant 1979, especially pp. 298-303).

In the United States, as in other parts of the world, tombs and burials are protected by law, but thousands of Americans pursue their hobby of “pot hunting” and routinely dig up American Indian burial sites for arrowheads, pots, beads, and even skeletons and skulls. Often, it is not the profit motive as much as the excitement of the “dig” and the resultant expansion of the artifact collection of the “amateur archeologist.”1 Such offenders are, nevertheless, in violation of federal statutes and could be fined up to $20,000 and given a 2-year prison sentence for the first offense to $100,000, and 5 years in jail for subsequent convictions, but few are ever indicted or convicted (see “Looting of Indian Graves Widespread in West” 1982; for a detailed exposition of both state and federal laws regarding removing human remains and artifacts from Native American burial sites, see Price 1991). A great many Native American relics, including a wide variety of skeletal materials and other types of human remains, are held in museums across the country. Although they were gathered “legally” by trained archeologists, Native American tribes see things quite differently. They consider it a “crime” that their ancestors’ bones are being “held hostage.” They seek to have them reburied (“Our Ancestors Are Being Held Hostage” 1994: A9).

The dead are completely helpless. To defile the corpse or the grave is to defile the memory and accomplishments of the deceased and the affection and respect in which they were held. It is, in effect, an attack on the sacred theology and philosophical ideology of the society itself. But for what are seen as good and sufficient reasons, the dead are often desecrated in spite of social prohibition to the contrary. (In an earlier time in England, the bodies of suicide victims were legally desecrated to deter other would-be suicides [see Hoffman and Webb 1981].)

Malicious Mischief/Amusement Motivational Mode

Some degree of preoccupation with death and the dead is constituent to the culture of all societies. Death and the dead are traumatic and anxiety-producing topics that can better be confronted if they are socially neutralized. In this society, death and the dead are camouflaged with humor and converted into amusement with the result that individuals can more comfortably indulge their curiosity about, and fascination with, such concerns. In effect, we laugh at death and the dead, and can, accordingly, better live with it and them. In this connection, death and the dead not infrequently become routinized into recreational and amusement patterns component to our popular culture (see Bryant and Shoemaker 1977).

Juveniles may whistle or sing when passing cemeteries at night, and simulated dead bodies and parts of dead bodies (e.g., peeled grapes as eyeballs) are traditionally integral to “Horror Houses” during the Halloween season. Tipping over tombstones and other types of cemetery vandalism are also traditional forms of juvenile malicious mischief, especially at Halloween time. Tombstones and other death monuments have sometimes been stolen as a “joke.” There are even cases of teenagers opening tombs and caskets to poke the body inside with a stick for a “thrill” (“Young Horror Buffs Open Casket” 1977). Cemetery vandalism, in most instances, appears to be motivated by a desire for “fun,” thrills, or “kicks” and often is perpetrated by children or teenagers. A typical case was that of two teenagers arrested for smashing and toppling of 26 tombstones in a historic cemetery on Staten Island (“2 Are Arrested” 1997:B2). A similar case is that of six teenagers arrested for toppling more than 800 tombstones in a Queens New York cemetery. Their vandalism was reported as a “ghoulishly gleeful rampage” (Fried 1991:12).

Sometimes bodies are used as a “joke” or for amusement. In Blake Edwards’s movie, S.O.B., several of the protagonists steal the body of a friend from the funeral home, drive away with it, sit around a house drinking with the corpse, and finally set it adrift in a burning small boat in order to give the friend’s corpse a “Viking” funeral? all as a “joke.” Such shenanigans are not unknown in real life, although totally illegal.

In 2002, in Long Island, New York, three teenagers were arrested and charged with felonies for allegedly having broken into above-ground crypts in a local cemetery, stolen three skeletons, dressed one of them as Darth Vader, and taken the skeleton to a party (Gootman 2003:4).

At one time, Egyptian mummies were collected by the rich, as well as by museums, because they were considered objets d’art, and the public found them interesting and amusing. For many years, carnival concessionaires have displayed various kinds of odd bodies and curious corpses, often in disregard of the law, because the public was fascinated with unusual exhibitions. A particularly morbid type of display common to carnivals was the exhibition of deformed fetuses in bottles of formaldehyde, euphemistically known in the trade as “pickled punks.” District attorneys in various parts of the country have begun to crack down on such carnival exhibitors by taking them to court, where they may receive stiff fines, have their fetuses confiscated, or be forced to give the fetuses a “decent” burial in a local cemetery—depriving the public of their amusement.

There are even instances of individuals retaining corpses as amusing novelty objects—in defiance of legal statutes to the contrary. A funeral director in a large city in Kentucky keeps a dehydrated, embalmed body about the premises as an amusing curiosity and “companion.” The owner and body have even appeared on national television. In North Carolina, a funeral director kept the embalmed body of a person of Italian extraction around the funeral home as a tourist attraction. The body (which had not been paid for) was nicknamed “Spaghetti.” Ultimately, public outrage motivated the local district attorney to enforce the law and make the funeral director bury the body (see Bryant and Shoemaker 1977).

It has been reported that an endemic problem in medical schools is preventing first-year anatomy students from defiling their anatomy class cadavers for fun and recreation. Some scholars have asserted that such behavior is merely the stuff of medical school myths (see Hafferty 1988), but persistent anecdotal accounts of this type of thanatological deviance from physicians and medical school students suggest that it has existed and still exists today. Favorite “jokes” (mythic or real) include cutting off the cadaver’s penis and surreptitiously placing it in a date’s purse, to be discovered when she goes to the powder room, or cutting off a cadaver’s hand and, when passing through a highway toll booth, dropping both the hand and the coin into the outstretched hand of the attendant. Such juvenile and despicable behavior would be illegal, unethical, unprofessional, and uncivilized, but it is alleged that medical school officials continue to have the problem as new classes have to “adjust” to their uncomfortable task with humor and mischief.

Profit/Economic Advantage Motivational Mode

If the carnivals patrons of the odd, body-curious corpse shows were amused and intrigued, the operators made money. There are, in fact, many ways to make money from the dead. In an earlier time, some unsavory persons robbed graves and sold the corpses to medical schools for students to dissect (for one historical account of this ghoulish practice, see Adams 1972; also see Nuland 2001; Armao 1985). In some instances, medical school faculty did the “body snatching.” In the 1800s in Egypt, whole cemeteries of mummies were sold to the Trans Sudan Railroad to be used as locomotive fuel, in violation of religious and social taboos.

More recently, Robin Cook’s (1977) novel, Coma (later made into a movie), had a plot that revolved around a criminal group that had patients killed on the operating table so that their bodies could be kept viable on life support systems. The bodies were kept in a storage facility so that their internal organs could be harvested and sold on the medical black market. With the coming-of-age of organ transplants, such a premise is not only possible but highly probable. Organ demand will surely exceed supply, and where there is demand, there is profit, even if illegal.

In real life, body parts are taken and sold on the black market. A few years ago, it was reported that in China, organs are taken from executed prisoners and sold to persons needing a transplant, sometimes in the United States (see Weiser 1999; Smith 1998).

Bodies and parts of bodies, often stolen from graves, are still sold. Several years ago in New York, a self-styled “warlock” (male witch) was arrested for selling skulls to pagan cults. The warlock hired teenagers to steal the skulls from mausoleums in the area. The offenders were caught and tried. The prosecuting district attorney said, “The alleged crimes defy description among civilized people” (“Skulls Stolen for Sale” 1977:A-2). The numerous human skeletons and skulls in nonmedical hands do not always come from legal sources.

Sometimes whole cemeteries have been robbed for their bronze and brass vases on the tops of tombstones. Such metals bring high prices from scrap dealers. Sometimes, people break into graves to steal from the dead. Mike Todd’s grave was broken into presumably because the robbers hoped to find a 10-carat ring that Todd had worn when alive. In suburban Maryland in 1983, a 24-year-old daughter and a 28-year-old son were arrested and charged with digging up their father’s grave to steal his gold teeth, because they thought a Swiss bank account number was etched on the gold crowns of the teeth (“Two Still Jailed” 1983). In pursuit of profit and economic advance, no crime is too grisly and no offense too ghoulish or macabre.

Some Native American burial sites and “Indian mounds” are looted to enlarge a relic collection, but often there is a profit motive. Because of the large number of Indian relic collectors who will pay top dollar for quality artifacts, looting such burial sites has become very much a big business enterprise (see Sugarman 1992; Brinkley-Rogers 1981).

A similar type of tomb robbing for profit is occurring on a widespread basis in parts of the Middle East, such as Palestine, where poverty has driven many to loot ancient burial sites (Ephron 2001).

Looting cemeteries and individual graves for profit is not infrequent, is relatively widespread, and is considered a particularly heinous affair. In New Orleans in 1999, there were a number of cases of grave thefts in which various kinds of cemetery statuary, urns, vases, iron crosses, wire benches, and other type of artifacts were stolen from local cemeteries, where they decorated above-ground tombs and sarcophagi. Many of the objects found their way into art collecting circles as far away as New York and Los Angeles (Brown 1999). In Camden, New Jersey, in 1991, a gold ring and a gold cross were stolen from the body of a Catholic bishop, who was lying in state. A 13-year-old boy was arrested (“A Bishop’s Body” 1991).

Pathological/Compulsive Motivational Mode

Offenses against the dead often grow out of mental pathology, temporary or permanent. In the 1600s in England, the hatred of Oliver Cromwell was so violent that his body was exhumed, hung up in public, and later taken down, and his head cut off. For generations, the head was passed from owner to owner, who often displayed it, until it ended up in the possession of Sidney Sussex College, which had it buried in an undisclosed grave in 1960.

In more modern times, law enforcement authorities sometimes encounter instances of “disturbed” persons refusing to bury bodies, or digging up bodies, in a vain attempt to deny death. Random instances appearing in various newspaper items include unsuccessful attempts to “raise bodies from the dead” by praying and chanting over them for a matter of hours or days. There are numerous bizarre cases of survivors attempting to keep bodies in closets and trunks for months or years in the hopes that the deceased might not be dead, or for other illogical reasons. There are even instances of distraught parents disinterring the bodies of dead infants or children because they could not face the fact of the death of their offspring. All such cases are viewed as heinous violations of the law and theoretically carry severe sanctions. Prosecutors and courts, however, sometimes tend to see such behavior as benign and well-intended pathological behavior, even if ghastly, and so they often react with compassion.

Some tomb thefts are motivated less by monetary considerations than by artistic collecting fervor, presumably of a rational but highly compulsive inclination, or possibly a death fetishism. In New York, a former cemetery caretaker was arrested for stealing a 9-foot-high Tiffany stained glass window from a mausoleum. He had been stealing artistic objects with which to decorate his home for 15 years (Brown 1999: A-l.).

One of the more repugnant, and arguably, pathological configurations of thanatological crime is the theft of bodies or body parts for sinister purposes, such as for use in Satanic or cult rituals. Examples here might be the case of two men in Newark, New Jersey, who were arrested and charged with desecration of graves and other offenses when police searched their home and found a cauldron of human skulls and other bones. The skeletal remains were believed to have come from a number of recent grave and mausoleum robberies in the area. The men were adherents of Palo Mayombe, an offshoot of a West African religion. The bones had been boiled to produce a liquid that could be drunk in order to cast spells or gain wealth or power (Smothers 2002).

Another gruesome illustration is a case in Queens, New York, of persons who dug up corpses and cut off their heads with a hacksaw in order to sell the heads for use in “cultist rituals.” Authorities indicated that as many as four corpses per year were being decapitated (Berreby 1995:14).

Perhaps the most socially repulsive form of pathological offenses against the dead is necrophilia (sex with the dead). (For a concise, but authoritative exposition on necrophilia, see Robinson 2002.) Although such offenses are admittedly rare, there is a literature on the topic, and some authorities even question the rarity (see Burg 1982). Rare or not, such behavior has even spawned its own variety of sick jokes, and in at least one instance, Ann Landers received a letter from a young woman who believed she was married to a necrophiliac. The public and the courts would undoubtedly react with revulsion in cases of necrophilia and with penal severity if insanity could not be demonstrated.

Sometimes, necrophilia may be “normalized” to some degree, even if still in violation of law or regulation. One historical account from the Vietnamese war related that an American army patrol shot and killed two young Vietnamese women. After that, one of the soldiers began having sex with one of the bodies, while another soldier stood guard (Terry 1984:29).

Using the Dead to Victimize Others

Although there may not be the same rich diversity of examples in the area of using the dead to victimize others there is with the victimization of the dead themselves, the sinister import of such behavior may be even more serious and reprehensible. The dead can, indeed, provide leverage to extort and manipulate the living.

Functional/Instrumental Motivational Mode

Perhaps nowhere in the world do the dead, in terms of the bodies, assume more value than in U.S. society. Even in wartime, the armed services go to extraordinary lengths to retrieve the bodies of those killed in combat at least for proper burial in a U.S. military cemetery overseas or, if possible and desired by family, for return to the United States itself for burial. (The U.S. Marines have a policy of bringing their wounded and the dead when withdrawing from a position or retreating.) Similarly, in the instance of civilian deaths, survivors feel it extremely important that the body be recovered, identified, restored to natural appearance (if necessary), and properly buried or otherwise disposed of. Given such an ideological posture, it is not surprising that bodies have sometimes served as hostages in an attempt to extort political advantage or other noneconomic gain from the living, immediate survivors, the larger community, or even the entire nation.

There was an attempt to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body, presumably to use as some sort of political hostage for unknown demands. There have also been instances of criminals using the bodies of their victims as hostages or “trading” material in trying to negotiate escape or some legal or judicial advantage. The best contemporary examples, however, have been the partially successful efforts on the part of the North Vietnamese government to permit only a trickle of American bodies out of their country. This serves to prolong the negotiations and keep the United States at a political disadvantage. Even more painful to the United States was the unsuccessful military attempt to free the embassy hostages in Iran. U.S. servicemen were killed and the Iranians publicly displayed the bodies, treated them with disrespect, and held them hostage, forcing the U.S. government to act with extreme timidity and reservation. From the standpoint of the Iranian regime, their actions were extremely functional and politically instrumental. As Kearl and Rinaldi (1983) put it, “For the Iranians, the dead symbolized the righteousness of their cause as well as the ineptness of a major power” (p. 695). In the various examples in this section, the motivation for using the dead to victimize the living was rational in design and purposive in intent.

Malicious Mischief/Amusement Motivational Mode

It is difficult to imagine that anyone could derive pleasure or amusement from tormenting the survivors of a deceased individual, but apparently there are many with both a sadistic and ghoulish sense of humor. It is not uncommon for families who have had a member die to experience all sorts of “crank” phone calls and “practical” jokes. Callers may ask for the deceased, claim they are the deceased, or say they are calling for the deceased. They may also send abusive or offensive letters and packages or vandalize the home of the survivors or even the recently closed grave for “fun,” then notify the family of their acts. In some instances, they simply harass the family of the deceased with constant phone calls, ringing the doorbell and running, or making loud noises around the house. They may place orders at fast-food restaurants in the name of the deceased and have them sent to the home of the family. The family is vulnerable, and the offender with a perverted sense of humor may use the occasion of an individual’s death to entertain himself or herself by annoying the family. Humor and amusement sometimes assume bizarre and convoluted configurations, and a death may allow the full manifestation of such a repulsive and distorted sense of humor by victimizing the family.

Profit/Economic Advantage Motivational Mode

Perhaps the simplest form of such offenses is when individuals use cemeteries as a location for robbery. Cemeteries are often secluded and empty. When bereaved relatives come to visit gravesites of deceased loved ones, the offenders mug or rob the visitors. Cemeteries provide opportunity for robbery. A typical example might be that of a man who was vandalizing gravestones in a Queens, New York cemetery and while there, stole $5.00 from a woman who had gone to visit a friend’s grave (“Queens Cemetery Vandal” 2001:B7).

Because of the trauma and grief that family and relatives experience when an individual dies, they are quite vulnerable and easily victimized. A favorite time to burglarize a home is while the family is at a funeral. Robbers read the obituary page of funeral announcements and break into the home during the time when the funeral is scheduled. Because such burglaries are so common, some families omit the home address of the deceased in obituaries. It is also quite common to have a friend “house sit” in the empty house during the funeral.

Within this subvariety of thanatological crime, a wide variety of “scams” or criminal confidence games are encountered. Unscrupulous funeral directors may bill the family of a deceased person for items or services not provided. As a case in point, several years ago, in a small town not far from New York City, a widow was billed for a burial shroud in which her deceased husband had allegedly been laid to rest. Several years later, the man’s body was exhumed and it was discovered that he was nude in a body bag. The funeral director was arrested and charged with falsifying business documents—a felony (“Funeral Director Charged” 1994:56).

Some years ago, it was reported that a woman in Los Angeles, along with her mother, fraudulently identified a corpse with no identity as her sister. The woman had no sister and used the coroner’s death certificate to fake her own death, thereby evading creditors and her probation officers who were on her trail. She was later arrested and sent to prison for 2 years (“Grief for the Coroner” 1988).

One of the most repugnant, but most durable, confidence rackets is selling merchandise “ordered by a deceased person” to the survivors. The offenders determine from the local newspaper obituary columns who has recently died. They then go to the home of the deceased and announce that they are delivering some object ordered by the person who is dead. The family naturally feels compelled to pay the “C.O.D.” charges and accept the merchandise. Perhaps the most common item to be delivered is a Bible, often with the deceased person’s name printed on it. This makes the purchase of the bible even more compelling. This was the confidence game used by Moses Pray (played by Ryan O’Neal) and Addie (played by O’Neal’s daughter, Tatum) in the movie, Paper Moon. Sometimes the stakes are much larger. The family may be told that the deceased owed large sums of money on land or business deals. Occasionally, there is an attempt to blackmail the family by threatening to reveal information that would harm the reputation of the deceased.

A related type of thanatological “scam” is illustrated by a case in a suburban community in New York in 1999. A 14-year-old boy who was the member of a basketball team was killed after the game by members of the opposing team. A few days later, an individual made his way down the streets of the community collecting money to help pay for the dead boy’s funeral. The man claimed to be the boy’s basketball coach. Some gave money to him, but other persons were suspicious and refused to contribute to the charity fund. It was later revealed that the man was not the boy’s coach and this solicitation was a fraud (Barnes 1999).

Some survivors cannot resolve the grief and end their mourning but instead seek ways of communicating with the dead. It is for such purposes that spiritualists and mediums offer their services. Attendance at a séance may be only an amusing interlude for some individuals, but for others it is an opportunity to talk with a deceased loved one. It is the latter type of person that can easily be victimized. Once the “contact” is made, the grieving survivor returns for séance after séance, often at escalating fees. The loved one (as interpreted by the medium) may even instruct the survivor to transact certain deals and deliver money to the medium. District attorneys at times have to step in and prosecute when spiritualists become too exploitative.

Bodies can be stolen and held for ransom from the survivors. Wealthy families of famous deceased persons are particularly attractive. Two cases in point include the body of Charlie Chaplin, which was successfully stolen from his grave (“Robbers Take Chaplin’s Body” 1978), and the body of Elvis Presley, which robbers unsuccessfully tried to steal (“Presley Body Snatch Suspected” 1977). The would-be grave robbers were arrested and indicted. In the instance of Presley’s body, the family was sufficiently concerned about possible subsequent attempts to steal the body to have his body moved to a new grave at his estate, Graceland, where the body could be guarded.

Grief provides excellent leverage for criminal extortion. Using the dead to victimize others offers a wide variety of deviant opportunities and often affords relative safety in committing the offenses. One of the most notorious death-related scandals in recent years was the discovery in February 2002 of hundreds of dead bodies in a wooded area behind a crematory in North Georgia. The Tri-State Crematory in a small community had been patronized by more than 30 funeral homes in Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama, who routinely sent bodies to the facility to be cremated. It apparently had operated as a reputable business enterprise at one time, but several years earlier, the cremation oven had broken down and had not been repaired. The incinerator of the crematory continued to receive bodies from funeral homes in the area but could not cremate the bodies, even though the owners accepted payment. Instead, they simply discarded the bodies in the wooded area adjacent to the crematory. They stacked bodies in the woods, in storage sheds, and outbuildings, and even threw some bodies into a pond on the property. In some instances, they passed off bags of dirt or cement powder as human remains. The owner-operator of the crematory was arrested on multiple charges. There have been numerous lawsuits filed against the crematory and some of the funeral homes that patronized the facility. The public was shocked and outraged, and there have been calls for more governmental oversight of crematories. The work of trying to identify the bodies continues even today (Firestone and McFadden 2002).

Pathological/Compulsive Motivational Mode

In some instances, body desecration as a means of insulting certain living groups rises to the level of pathology. In 1997, in Queens, New York, two vandals broke into a mausoleum in a Jewish cemetery and set fire to the remains of a body. This was believed to be an anti-Semitic offense intended to cause mental pain to the Jewish community, the family of the deceased, or both. Mayor Rudy Giuliani described the incident as “a pretty sick and perverted act” (Onishi 1997:3).

Sometimes, cemetery vandalism may not be merely a matter of “fun” but may also have elements of political or prejudicial motivation. A case in point was the vandalization of a Jewish cemetery in Woodbridge, New Jersey. The vandals spray painted neon orange swastikas, epithets, messages about killing Jews, and other anti-Semite graffiti on the gravestones. The vandalism was described as, “deliberate, purposeful and malicious desecration” (Herszenhorn 1998; see also Blair 1998; Hanley 1993). Here, the intent would be to inflict insult, if not psychological injury, on the living—a racial, ethnic, or religious group.

Sometimes the hatred of a person or family may be so intense or so pathological that the affected individual or individuals may seek to harm the survivors by committing offenses against a deceased family member. As an example, approximately 20 years ago, a federal judge in a deep-south state rendered a decision in a civil rights case that was quite unpopular with some segments of the local population. There were angry letters to the newspapers denouncing the judge, some quite vitriolic. It was subsequently reported that the judge received abusive and threatening telephone calls. The rage felt by some persons, however, manifested itself in a senseless offense against the judge’s dead son. The judge had recently lost a grown son who was buried in a local cemetery. In an effort to psychologically hurt the judge, some person or persons dumped garbage and debris on the son’s grave, and, indeed, the judge was much disturbed by this desecration.

Disturbed individuals or persons with irrational rage or compulsions may physically harm a body as a means of punishing the family or some larger group of survivors. Cases of stealing bodies, removing heads or other parts of the anatomy, or otherwise mutilating the corpse to obtain revenge or punish the survivors are not unknown. Sometimes murderers may purposely mutilate the body of their victim as a means of inflicting harm on the victim’s family.

Monuments and memorials to the dead may also be damaged or harmed as a means of striking out at some group or category of persons whom the offender associates with a person to whom monuments and memorials are dedicated. Any act that may disturb the memory of the deceased can constitute a pathological weapon against the survivors. The feud between two Chinese leaders, Deng Xiaoping and Zhao Ziyang, turned pathological at one point in their political fight. The grave of Zhao’s mother was desecrated in September 1988, and his followers blamed Deng’s supporters. They, in turn, dug up the tomb of a family member of Deng. Later when Deng came to power, he forced Zhao out of the government (“Grave Offenses” 1989).


Proscriptions and prescriptions relating to the treatment of the dead and the attendant taboos and sanctions are among the oldest normative systems on earth, and they can be found in all societies. In spite of intense reverence for the dead, deep emotional repugnance for mistreatment of the dead, and often severe sanctions for such mistreatment, offenses against the dead occur in all societies and are especially prevalent in U.S. society.

Such offenses occur because it is often circumstantially expedient to do so and thus quite rational in some contexts. As in many other areas of social life, the regulative and legal dimensions of the normative system for processing the dead are quite elaborate3 and, in some instances, relatively convoluted. Persons involved in processing the dead sometimes violate the regulations and ordinances, not out of disrespect for the dead, but rather because of commercial necessity, as they see it. A funeral home in a large city in Virginia was fined and the embalming license of a former employee was suspended because the employee had buried bags of human organs in a backyard lot. This was not the specified manner of disposing of human organs. Investigation revealed that the embalmer buried the organs from the corpses of 10 people who had undergone autopsies. Inasmuch as the organs would not “fit back into body cavities,” the embalmer had buried the organs in a vacant lot rather than following legally prescribed disposal procedure (“Organ Disposal Brings Fine” 1985).

In U.S. society, humor and amusement are important mechanisms for addressing fear and anxiety concerning death and the dead. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that offenses against the dead and the survivors are sometimes motivated by, and occur within a context of, “fun,” even if the behavior suggests a perverted or grotesque sense of humor. Similarly, wealth and materialism are also important values and priorities in U.S. society. Death and the dead are easily commercialized and economically exploited, as are the survivors of the deceased individual. It is often easier to steal from the dead than the living, and the dead would increasingly seem to have economic value, even if for unsavory purposes. The profit motive frequently precipitates heinous violations of the taboos forbidding the mistreatment of the dead or those who grieve for the dead.

The taboos against the mistreatment of the dead are deep-seated and operate within a highly emotional context. Violators of such taboos require strong motivation, even if irrational, to risk the wrath and sanction of society. Such motivation may often be pathological or compulsive in nature, deriving from an irrational hatred or prejudice. This type of behavior may also result from mental impairment or emotional disturbance, permanent or temporary. Harm to the dead, their survivors, or both may also be attributable to a desire on the part of the offender to seek revenge for perceived grievous injuries and indignities at the hands of the deceased or some social entity to which they are component.

“Thanatological crime” is a compelling variety of deviant behavior that has been too long neglected. Further examination of the behavioral vagaries constituting mistreatment of the dead and their survivors may well afford significant insights into the basic nature of norm perception and interpretation in this area. Ideally, this preliminary conceptualization of “thanatological crime” will facilitate further exploration.