Human remains may be exhumed - or dug up again after burial - for many reasons. Sometimes an old burial ground is disturbed when building works occur. A criminal investigation may require that a body is exhumed for further testing. There is also illegal exhumation as performed by 'body snatchers'.

Legal exhumation needs a court order to grant permission and/or the permission of the next of kin of the deceased.

In some cultures, graves are deliberately opened again after some years. This happens in areas of Southern China such as Taiwan. The bones of their relatives are ritually dug up, cleaned, left to dry and then put into a ceramic pot to be buried elsewhere. In Vietnam, they are placed into a smaller coffin and the family take them home. If this isn't done, it's considered an act of great disrespect.

In this article, we're going to take a look at five famous people who were exhumed and then buried again. Well, six to be exact. You get two for one with Edgar Allan Poe and his wife.

Pablo Neruda

Nobel prize-winning poet (July 12 1904 - September 23 1973)

Nobel prize-winning poet, Pablo NerudaCredit: last week, (Monday 8 April 2013) The Guardian newspaper in the UK announced that the body of Nobel prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda was to be exhumed in Chile[1]. The exhumation is part of an investigation into how he died, almost 40 years ago.

Neruda died in September 1973, twelve days after the military coup of 11 September. The coup took General Augusto Pinochet into power. Neruda was close friends with former President Salvador Allende who chose to commit suicide rather than give in to Pinochet in the coup.

Neruda was known to have prostate cancer and for years after he passed, everyone simply assumed that he had died from it.

Then Manuel Araya, who had been Neruda's driver and bodyguard, started to recollect his employer's last days and new suspicions arose. Could the new Pinochet regime have got rid of Neruda - after all, he was popular, famous and not afraid to be a dissenting voice.

Araya recalled that Neruda was getting ready to go into exile in Mexico. At that point, a doctor injected him - and after this his health quickly went downhill. On Neruda's death certificate, the cause of death was noted as 'an advanced and incurable cancer leading to malnutrition and wasting away'.

Exhumation of Pablo NerudaCredit: Chilean lawyer, Eduardo Contreras, has been piecing together Neruda's final weeks. As mentioned, Neruda was preparing to go into exile in Mexico. He was also known to be sexually active with his lover and still actively discussing politics. Contreras argues that all of these behaviours are not consistent with a man on his deathbed.

The poet's estate is managed by The Pablo Neruda Foundation. They were opposed to the exhumation. Mario Carroza, the investigating judge, originally agreed with them. However, an ongoing enquiry over the last 2 years persuaded him to go ahead and allow an exhumation.

The exhumation took place on 8th April 2013[2]. The poet's remains were taken to Santiago and tests will be carried out to establish the cause of death.

Elvis Presley

(January 8 1935 - August 16 1977)

Let's start by looking at the popular ‘misspelled gravestone’ conspiracy theory. This is where conspiracy theorists believe that Elvis is still alive and that his gravestone was deliberately misspelled to give this message to his fans. They argue that his middle name was always spelled with one A – Aron. On his gravestone it is clearly spelled Aaron.

Elvis Presley's grave at GracelandCredit: truth is that Elvis’ parents named him ‘Elvis Aron Presley’ but when they went to register his birth, the clerk wrote the Aron as Aaron[3]. It seems odd but neither of his parents (or Elvis himself) realised the error for several years.

The mistake came to light when Elvis decided to legally change his middle name to Aaron, only to find that he already had that name. So there is nothing odd about it on his gravestone. It was always his legal name.

Moved for his own protection

Elvis Presley's funeral cortegeCredit: Elvis’ funeral service, his coffin was placed alongside his mother, Gladys, in a granite and marble mausoleum at Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis[4].

The fan worship refused to go away after Elvis passed. In fact, it got worse – especially as many fans simply refused to believe that their hero had gone. Sightings of Elvis started to be reported all across America. Eventually, two months after the original interment, Elvis’ body was moved to protect it from fans who were threatening to break into the crypt to see if it really contained Elvis. He was finally laid to rest in the garden at Graceland[5].

Lee Harvey Oswald

(October 18, 1939 - November 24, 1963)

According to the findings of four Government investigations, Lee Harvey Oswald was the man who shot and killed the 35th President John F. Kennedy, in Dallas, Texas on November 22nd 1963.

Lee Harvey Oswald shot by Jack Ruby on live TVCredit: days later, Oswald was being taken through the basement of Dallas Police Headquarters. He was surrounded by police and security men and the first part of his transfer to the county jail was being televised, live.

At 11.21 am, mobster and local nightclub owner Jack Ruby stepped forward and shot Oswald. The bullet tore his aorta and several organs. Oswald, who was unconscious, was rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital. Ironically, this was the same Hospital where President Kennedy had been pronounced dead. Oswald himself was pronounced at 1.07 pm[6].

The conspiracy theories start...

As with Elvis Presley's death, conspiracy theories abounded. The Lee Harvey Oswald shooting spawned a raft of alternative theories as to what had actually occurred.

One prominent theorist, Michael Eddowes, didn't believe that Oswald had been shot during his transfer. He was of the opinion that a Soviet spy had taken Oswald’s place and been fatally shot[7].

And conspiracy theorists are nuts, right? Except that Eddowes was an English Lawyer and author. His theories came to light in his book The Oswald File.  

Was it Oswald...or not?

Lee Harvey Oswald exhumedCredit: the book, Eddowes argues that Oswald was 5 ft 11 in tall but the pathologists who did the autopsy listed that the corpse was 5 ft 9 in. There were other differences too. The autopsied corpse had a large scar on his wrist but Oswald didn't.

Oswald had a mastoid operation when he was a child, which left a depression behind one of his ears and a asmall hole in his skull. Eddowes claimed that the autopsied corpse had neither of these.

Eventually, Eddowes obtained the consent of Oswald's widow and then went to the Texas courts. Permission was granted for exhumation and this was carried out in 1981. The casket had been underground for eighteen years and a leak into it had caused much damage. However, the body was positively matched as Oswald's through his dental records.

Despite the positive match, Eddowes still wouldn't believe it and clung to his Russian Spy theory until he died from a burst aneurysm in 1992.

Samuel George "Sammy" Davis Jr

(December 8 1925 - May 16 1990)

Sammy Davis JrCredit: died from complications due to cancer of the throat. He was told that his best chance of surviving the cancer was to have his voice box totally removed in a laryngectomy operation. He refused, saying that he would rather have his voice. He was given chemotherapy and radiation.

Sadly, a few weeks before he died, his whole larynx was surgically removed.

He was buried next to his father in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California[8].

Two days after he died, all the lights on the 4.2-miles of the Strip in Las Vegas were turned off for ten minutes as a tribute to one of their favorite sons.

Sammy Davis Jr's grave markerCredit: didn't rest in peace for long.

When his wife, Altovise found out that her husband had been almost bankrupt when he died, she had him dug up so that she could reclaim the $70,000 worth of jewelry that she had buried with him[9].





Edgar Allan Poe and his wife Virginia Eliza Poe

both exhumed and reburied

Virginia Poe, wife of Edgar Allan PoeCredit: Allan Poe married his cousin, Virginia Clemm when he was 27 years old. His bride was only 13 years old and he adored her. Sadly, Virginia died of tuberculosis in 1847 when she was only 24.

Hours after his beloved wife had died, a grief-stricken Poe realised that he had no image to help him remember the woman he so worshippped. An artist, Felix O. C. Darley was hastily found and a watercolour portrait commissioned[10]. Virginia's body was dressed in her finest linens and was either posed on a chair or lying down - history doesn't record which. It is thought that the artist may have used a drawing aid. The 'camera lucida' uses a mirror to superimpose the artist's model onto the surface of his paper or canvas[11].

The watercolour became known as 'the deathbed' portrait.

Is this an early 'photo' of Virginia?

Daguerreotype, allegedly of Virginia PoeCredit: Poe was concerned that he would have no image to remember his deceased wife by, his family later claimed that they remembered her sitting for a daguerreotpe. This was the first commercially successful type of photography and enabled families who couldn't afford to have their portraits painted, to have a likeness taken.

A daguerreotype has been found which is possibly an image of Virginia. It was made in Boston in around 1845. Virginia would have been 22 or 23. The Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia included the daguerreotype in an exhibition called 'Poe Revealed' in 2011 and invited visitors to decide for themselves if the image was of Virginia[12].


Virginia Poe dies from TB

Edgar Allan PoeCredit: was completely undone by the death of the young wife that he worshipped. He turned to drink and took to visiting her grave frequently. His friend, Charles Chauncey Burr wrote

"Many times, after the death of his beloved wife, was he found at the dead hour of a winter night, sitting beside her tomb almost frozen in the snow[10]"

Virginia was buried in a vault in Fordham in the Bronx. This was owned by the Valentines - Poe's neighbours and friends who had rented their cottage in Fordham to the Poes.

Edgar Allan Poe dies

Edgar Allan Poe's gravestoneCredit: Allan died just two years later in mysterious circumstances. He was buried in Westminster Cemetery in Maryland, towards the back of the cemetery, near his grandfather.

The plot was owned by the family and was small and overgrown and Poe didn't even have a headstone.

His cousin, Neilson, had paid for a grand one made from white Italian marble. Unfortunately, a train came of its' rails and went straight through the stonemason's yard, destroying the headstone intended for Poe.

Consequently, his grave was marked by a simple stone block, reading 'No 80'[13].



Together at last

Edgar Allan Poe's Monument/Gravestone in Westminster HallCredit: got enough money together to give Poe a better burial and he himself was exhumed and reburied. He was still in the same cemetery but in a better position.

In that same year, the cemetery where Virginia had been buried was destroyed and her grave was disturbed. William Gill, a biographer of Poe and a huge Poe enthusiast managed to obtain Virginia's bones. Believe it or not, her bones lay in a box under Gill's bed for ten years. He later wrote to Neilson Poe (Edgar Allan's cousin) and John Prentiss Poe and together, they brought the pitiful box of bones to Maryland to be laid to rest with those of her husband.

This finally took place on 19th January 1885 which happened to be the 76th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe[10].

In a 'full circle' coincidence, the Sexton who had presided over Edgar Allan Poe's first burial and his subsequent exhumation and reburial was the same man who re-buried Virginia - together with her husband at last.