The first time you see a photo of a mortsafe, it conjures up images from horror movies. The caged contraption that surrounds a grave appears to be designed to keep the deceased from rising from the dead, leaving the coffin, and wreaking havoc. In reality, the opposite was true. Mortsafes were designed to keep people out.
What is a mortsafe? The Oxford Dictionaries website defines it as: An iron frame placed over a coffin or at the entrance of a grave as a protection against resurrectionists in Scotland. Mortsafes can also be found in England. The word “mort” is latin and translates into English as “death”. The word safe means: protected from or not exposed to danger or risk; not likely to be harmed or lost.
The word Resurrectionists refers to a certain type of Christianity in which people believe that a deceased person’s body must be intact so that the person can be resurrected. Oddly enough, the word resurrectionist was also the word used for a person who exhumes and steals dead bodies, specifically for the purpose of dissection. Another way to say resurrectionist is “body snatcher”. The Random House Dictionary dates the word resurrectionist as first being used somewhere between 1770 and 1780.
Why were people stealing dead bodies? The answer to that question is less nefarious than you might imagine. They were stealing bodies for science. In the late 18th century, there was a need for doctors to learn anatomy. The only way to do that was obtain recently deceased bodies and use them for medical education. At first, the bodies used were those of criminals or of the unidentified deceased.
This worked well, to a point. By the early 19th century, there were less bodies coming from those sources. Doctors still needed to learn anatomy, though. Medical Schools started paying for cadavers, and stopped asking where those bodies came from. People who wanted to make money started stealing bodies out of graveyards.
Naturally, relatives of the recently deceased were horrified by the thought that their loved one’s body could end up dissected in a Medical School. The solution to the problem was to make use of a mortsafe. A mortsafe was a series of iron bars that resembled a cage. It surrounded a coffin and sometimes includes stone slabs as well. Body snatchers would be completely unable to dig up the recently deceased who lies beneath a mortsafe.
The mortsafes were reusable. People paid money to organizations (or to churches) in order to ensure a mortsafe would be available for their loved ones. In short, if your ancestor was buried inside a mortsafe, it doesn’t mean he or she was a zombie or vampire!
Image by Lisa on Flickr.
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