The disturbing history of grave robberies that leave families in fear

Nduta Waweru June 26, 2018
Kariokor cemetery Nairobi. Photo: Twitter

The news report that a family in Kisumu in Kenya is grappling with the disappearance of the body of one of their relatives has brought to the fore the weird and disturbing culture of body snatching.

The body of Joyce Auma, who had been buried back in 2015, went missing on April 9, 2018, to the shock and dismay of the family.

“I wonder why anyone should destroy our peace by taking away her body,” the deceased’s father, Akello, told the Nation.

This is not the first time such as incident has taken place in Kenya and across Africa.

The disturbing history of grave robberies that leave families in fear

Photo: Victor Otieno/Nation Media Group

But the question on many people’s mind is: why exactly do people rob graves or snatch bodies?

One of the most common reasons is money.  The business of trading human organs and skulls for ritualistic purposes is apparently a very lucrative business.

“The desecration of graves is about money in this region. It is for sacrifices, or for bewitching,” one of Benin’s cemetery directors Joseph Afaton said to Reuters in 2012.

At the time, more than 100 graves had been robbed of bodies for what was believed to be voodoo ritualistic sacrifices.

In the United States, grave robbing was connected to medical practice especially in the 1800s.  Since most of the African slaves at the time could not afford to properly bury their relatives, the bodies were buried in potters field, where the dead were buried in mass.

The disturbing history of grave robberies that leave families in fear

Photo: Find A Grave

Most of these graves were usually shallow, making it easy for the grave robbers to dig up a body and take it away.  These bodies would then be transported to medical centres across North America, where they would be dissected.  Two states in America in the 19th century even passed laws allowing the use of bodies from the poor and from these potters fields for medical purposes.

In South Africa, grave robbing has taken a whole new turn. Hospitals have entered contracts with gravediggers to bury dead patients who have not been claimed by family.  These undertakers would earn some money from the state for burying paupers, a lucrative and competitive business, according to some people.

This has led to the recycling of bodies, where a body is used repeatedly for a number of burials with the aim of defrauding the government.

Over the years, people have used different methods to protect their dead. Some have put protective fences, called mortsafe, around the grave to prevent body snatching. These iron frames were famous in Scotland and would be removed from the graves after a considerable duration.

The disturbing history of grave robberies that leave families in fear

Secured grave in Jamaica. Photo: InsideJourneys

Those who can afford it would build family mausoleums, where they bury all their dead. However,  this has not always protected the dead. A good example would be in Mauritania’s royal mausoleum where body snatching was blamed for the absence of bodies. 

The disturbing history of grave robberies that leave families in fear

Royal Mausoleum, Mauritania. Photo: Wiki CC

Many others, who have space, have avoided burying their dead in public cemeteries opting for private ones where they would be security throughout.

There have been laws and regulations against body snatching across Africa, with the police usually heavily involved in investigating and arresting gravediggers.


Last Edited by:Ismail Akwei Updated: June 26, 2018


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