Security in Death: The History and Purpose of the Mortsafe

The Mortsafe, a historical security measure used to protect the deceased from grave robbers, has a fascinating history and purpose. This article explores the origin, design, and significance of Mortsafe, as well as its relevance in modern times. Additionally, it delves into the different types of Mortsafes and their materials, designs, and distribution across various regions.

Key Takeaways

  • Mortsafes were designed to prevent body snatching and protect the deceased from grave robbers.
  • The construction of Mortsafes varied in design and materials used, reflecting the ingenuity of their creators.
  • Mortsafes played a significant role in preserving the sanctity of burial grounds and honoring the deceased.
  • Modern preservation efforts aim to safeguard Mortsafes as historical artifacts and protect their cultural heritage value.
  • The controversies surrounding Mortsafes highlight the ethical and legal considerations of cemetery security.

The Origin of Mortsafe

The Origin of Mortsafe

Purpose of Mortsafe

The primary purpose of a mortsafe was to deter body snatching, a prevalent issue in the 18th and 19th centuries. Body snatchers, also known as resurrectionists, would illicitly remove corpses from graves for sale to medical schools and anatomists, who were in desperate need of cadavers for educational purposes. The mortsafe was a response to this macabre trade, offering a physical barrier to protect the sanctity of the grave.

Mortsafes were typically leased to families for a period until the body was deemed unsuitable for medical dissection. This period varied, but a common duration was six weeks. After this time, the body would have decomposed sufficiently to be of no use to anatomists, and the mortsafe could be removed and used for another burial.

  • Lease Duration: Commonly six weeks
  • Purpose: Prevent body snatching
  • Users: Families of the deceased

The introduction of mortsafes reflected societal values and fears, as well as the legal and ethical tensions of the time. They were a grim reminder of the lengths to which society would go to protect the dead from desecration.

Design and Construction

The construction of mortsafes was a direct response to the fear of body-snatching, prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries. Mortsafes were designed to be robust and impenetrable, often made from iron with heavy lids and complex locking mechanisms. These structures were typically leased to families for a short period until the risk of exhumation diminished.

Mortsafes varied in design, but common features included adjustable length to accommodate different coffin sizes and a framework that could be anchored to the ground. The effectiveness of a mortsafe depended on its ability to resist tampering, and as such, they were often tested rigorously before being deemed suitable for use.

The following list outlines the key components typically found in a mortsafe:

  • Iron plates or bars
  • Locking mechanism with keys
  • Adjustable size settings
  • Anchoring system to secure to the ground

The design and construction of mortsafes were not only a reflection of the societal fears of the time but also an example of the ingenuity employed to protect the sanctity of the grave.

Historical Significance

The historical significance of mortsafes extends beyond their immediate purpose of deterring grave robbers. They symbolized a societal response to the fear of body snatching, prevalent during the 18th and 19th centuries. This fear was not unfounded, as the demand for cadavers in medical schools led to a macabre underground trade. Mortsafes, therefore, became a physical and cultural bulwark against this desecration, reflecting the values and concerns of the time.

The use of mortsafes also had unintended consequences on the practices and policies of cemeteries. They influenced the development of cemetery security measures and prompted discussions on the sanctity of burial sites. The presence of mortsafes in historical records, such as the Historic Environment Record (HER), provides valuable insights into the evolving attitudes towards death and body treatment. These artefacts serve as a poignant reminder of past fears and the lengths to which society would go to protect the deceased.

The following list highlights key points regarding the historical significance of mortsafes:

  • They were a direct response to the widespread fear of body snatching.
  • Mortsafes reflected societal values and the need for security in death.
  • They influenced cemetery practices and the evolution of security measures.
  • Historical records, including the HER, document the presence and impact of mortsafes.

Mortsafe in Modern Times

Mortsafe in Modern Times

Preservation Efforts

The preservation of mortsafes has become a significant concern for historians and conservationists alike. Efforts to maintain these historical artefacts are crucial in understanding the social history of the 18th and 19th centuries. The process often involves meticulous restoration and sometimes even replication to prevent further decay of the original structures.

Key to these preservation efforts is the collaboration with local historical records, such as the Historic Environment Record (HER), which provides valuable information on archaeological sites and existing mortsafes. However, it is important to note that the HER information is not exhaustive and original sources should be consulted for a comprehensive understanding.

The following list outlines the main steps taken in the preservation of mortsafes:

  • Assessment of the current condition and historical significance
  • Consultation with HER and other archival sources
  • Restoration or replication of damaged parts
  • Regular maintenance and inspections
  • Public education and awareness campaigns

These steps ensure that mortsafes are not only preserved physically but also remain a part of public knowledge, contributing to the broader narrative of cemetery security and historical practices.


The use of mortsafes has not been without its controversies. The ethical implications of using such devices to protect the deceased from body-snatchers have been debated since their inception. Some argue that mortsafes reflect a societal failure to respect the dead, while others see them as a necessary response to the grave-robbing epidemic of the time.

The discussion also extends to the modern-day preservation of mortsafes. Concerns have been raised about whether it is appropriate to maintain these symbols of past fears and superstitions in cemeteries that are still active. The debate is further complicated by the fact that mortsafes are often seen as historical artefacts worthy of conservation.

  • Ethical implications of mortsafe use
  • Modern-day preservation debates
  • Historical artefact conservation

The following table summarizes the key points of contention surrounding mortsafes:

Aspect Pro Preservation Con Preservation
Ethical Protects history Disrespects dead
Practical Deters vandalism Promotes fear
Cultural Preserves heritage Perpetuates superstitions

Impact on Cemetery Security

The introduction of mortsafes marked a significant shift in cemetery security during the 19th century. Their presence was a deterrent to body-snatchers, who were often tempted by the lucrative trade in medical cadavers. As a result, the security of burial sites was considerably enhanced, ensuring the sanctity of the graves was maintained.

In the context of modern cemetery management, the historical significance of mortsafes is acknowledged, but their practical role has evolved. Today, the focus is on preserving these artifacts as part of the cultural heritage rather than for security purposes. The Somerset Historic Environment Record (HER) provides insights into the ongoing efforts to document and protect such historical structures, including mortsafes. The HER is a comprehensive record of the known historic environment in the area, including upstanding built environments like cemeteries.

The following list highlights the key aspects of the HER’s role in relation to cemetery security and mortsafes:

  • Documentation of historical security measures, including mortsafes.
  • Preservation of archaeological sites and artifacts.
  • Provision of information for legal or planning-related work.
  • Encouragement of public engagement and feedback on historical sites.

Types of Mortsafes

Types of Mortsafes

Materials Used

The construction of mortsafes was a direct response to the rampant grave robbing that plagued the 19th century, particularly for the purpose of supplying medical schools with cadavers for dissection. Mortsafes were typically made from durable materials to withstand attempts at tampering and to endure the elements over time.

The most common materials used in the making of mortsafes included iron and stone. Iron was favored for its strength and resistance to damage, while stone added an extra layer of security due to its weight and difficulty to move. Some mortsafes were constructed entirely from iron, forming a cage-like structure, while others combined iron with stone slabs to create a more formidable barrier.

  • Iron: Used for its durability and strength.
  • Stone: Provided weight and added security.
  • Wood: Occasionally used, though less secure than metal or stone.

These materials were chosen not only for their physical properties but also for their availability and cost at the time. The choice of material could also be influenced by personal, cultural, or religious preferences, as noted in discussions about burial containers such as caskets and coffins.

Variations in Design

The design of mortsafes varied significantly across different regions and time periods, reflecting the local materials available and the evolving techniques of construction. Mortsafes were not a one-size-fits-all solution; rather, they were tailored to the specific threats and conditions of each locale. For instance, in urban areas where grave robbing was more prevalent, mortsafes often featured heavier and more elaborate designs to deter theft.

Some common variations included the use of flat stone slabs, intricately wrought ironwork, or a combination of both. The level of craftsmanship could range from rudimentary to highly ornate, depending on the wealth of the community and the perceived risk of body snatching. In some cases, the design was so unique that it could be considered a form of art, with the mortsafe itself serving as a testament to the skill of its creator.

Below is a list of notable design variations observed in mortsafes:

  • Flat stone slab tops
  • Wrought iron cages
  • Layered stone and iron constructions
  • Customized locking mechanisms
  • Decorative elements such as finials and crests

Geographical Distribution

The distribution of mortsafes across different regions reflects the varying degrees of grave-robbing threats experienced historically. In areas where the practice of body-snatching was rampant, mortsafes were more commonly installed. The prevalence of mortsafes in certain localities can be linked to the intensity of medical research and the consequent demand for cadavers during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The use of mortsafes was not uniform across all geographies. Some regions employed alternative methods for protecting graves, or the local legislation and enforcement were sufficient to deter grave robbers. The table below illustrates the distribution of mortsafes in selected areas, based on historical records and archaeological findings:

Region Number of Mortsafes Notable Practices
Area A 12 Vigilance groups
Area B 25 Heavy penalties
Area C 5 Community watch

It is important to note that the data may not be exhaustive, as many mortsafes could have been removed or deteriorated over time. Moreover, the Historic Environment Record (HER) provides insights into the presence of mortsafes within certain administrative boundaries, such as Somerset, which excludes Exmoor National Park.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the purpose of a Mortsafe?

The purpose of a Mortsafe was to protect buried bodies from being stolen by body snatchers for medical dissection during the 18th and 19th centuries.

How were Mortsafes designed and constructed?

Mortsafes were typically made of iron and consisted of a cage-like structure that was placed over a grave to prevent access to the coffin.

Why are Mortsafes historically significant?

Mortsafes provide insight into the fear of grave robbing and the measures taken to protect the deceased in the past.

What preservation efforts are being made for Mortsafes today?

There are ongoing efforts to preserve and restore Mortsafes in cemeteries as part of historical conservation projects.

Are there any controversies surrounding Mortsafes?

Some controversies arise regarding the ethics of using Mortsafes and their impact on the historical landscape of cemeteries.

How do Mortsafes impact cemetery security?

Mortsafes contribute to enhancing cemetery security by deterring unauthorized access to graves and protecting the resting places of the deceased.