What is a Mortsafe?

Metal cage protecting grave
This iron-cage mortsafe, located in the Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Scotland, originally protected the bodies buried beneath it from grave robbers. Photo © Postdlf

A mortsafe comprises a structure/device of varying design and materials used to deter or prevent the theft of a deceased body from a cemetery, graveyard or other burial location until the corpse suitably decomposes.

A mortsafe structure/device might consist of stone and/or metal bars or plates -- often in the form of a cage -- that encircles or at least partially covers the deceased body and either permanently prevents access or only enables access via key(s).

Mortsafes vary in size, height and design, and might be placed above ground or partially/entirely buried in the ground.

The use of a mortsafe was generally temporary (explained below), but examples survive worldwide.

History of Mortsafes:
Primarily used in the early 1800s, mortsafes relied upon weight and/or complexity of access to thwart the efforts of grave robbers or "body snatchers" -- particularly in England and Scotland -- who sought to exhume fresh corpses for later sale to medical schools and research facilities for study. (Medical schools at the time actually paid for cadavers for anatomical study and dissection use, which fueled the growing problem of grave robbing in cemeteries.)

It is probably no coincidence that British author Mary Shelley published her classic novel in 1818 during the height of the body-snatching problem -- Dr. Frankenstein crafts his reanimated "monster" from body parts exhumed from a local graveyard.

The photograph above shows a common, partially buried mortsafe, located in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh, Scotland, but surviving mortsafes worldwide also provide evidence of ornate, elegant "birdcage" structures -- including some in the United States -- as well as purely utilitarian, below-ground versions only unearthed decades later by grave diggers.

As the grave-robbing problem escalated in the 1800s, people resorted to the use of heavy stone slabs, stone boxes and locked above-ground vaults, among other methods, to protect the bodies of their loved ones, but body snatchers easily dug around such devices or used bribes to gain access to vaults. Eventually, enterprising individuals conceived of more elaborate mortsafes, some of which required multiple keys to unlock, interlocking metal bars, secured metal rods that prevented digging around the corpse, etc.

The intention of mortsafes was to protect the burial site and prevent its violation temporarily -- until a corpse suitably decomposed -- thereby rendering the deceased body less desirable and/or unsuitable for resale. In fact, many churches and cemeteries at the time rented used mortsafes if a family could not afford to purchase a new one outright. Unfortunately, many of the ingenious methods used to protect the deceased also made the removal of mortsafes difficult or impossible, which partially explains why examples survive to this day.

Word Origin:
In use since around the year 1500, "mort" originally referred to the sound emitted on a hunting horn following the death of a hunter's quarry, but ultimately derives from the older Latin term for "dead."

In use since around the year 1300, the term "safe" derives from the Latin word "salvus," meaning "uninjured" or "in good health."

Heavily influenced by early Germanic language, which often combined two words to form something new, it is easy to grasp the origin of the modern-English term mortsafe.

A mortsafe is often referred to as a mort safe (two words) or mort-safe (hyphenated). In addition, cemetery vaults (above or below ground), mausolea and sarcophagi, among other things, technically constitute mortsafes even if not originally intended to deter/prevent grave robbing.

Additional Reading:
3 Reasons to Buy a Tombstone in Advance
How to Clean a Cemetery Gravemarker or Headstone

"Cages on Graves Explained" by Ann F. Diseroad. Columbia County Historical & Genealogical Society. Retrieved May 25, 2015. http://colcohist-gensoc.org/wp-content/uploads/Cages%20on%20Graves%20Explained.pdf

"Relics of the Body-snatchers -- Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland," by James Ritchie, Volume 55 (1920-21). Retrieved May 25, 2015. http://www.tngenweb.org/darkside/mortsafe/mortsafe2.html

"mort (n.2)." Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved May 26, 2015. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=mort

"safe (adj.)." Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved May 26, 2015. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=safe

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