A record number of buried bodies are being exhumed lately. The body of the former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat is being tested to see if his sudden death in 2004 was caused by poison (they suspect the Israelis, naturally). Suspicious concentrations of the radioactive isotope polonium-210 were found on his clothes and toothbrush during an investigation this summer.
Advances in DNA testing, biochemical analysis and other scientific techniques are some of the things that have led to this increased rate of exhumations. Danish researchers exhumed the body of astronomer Tycho Brahe in 2010 and tested his bones to see if he died of natural causes or was poisoned by his assistant Johannes Kepler. The bodies of Simón Bolívar, Bobby Fischer and Nicolae Ceausescu have also been exhumed. Christopher Columbus was exhumed in 2003, Jesse James in 1995, and Lee Harvey Oswald in 1981.
In 2010, the Department of the Interior turned down a request to exhume the body of the explorer Meriwether Lewis from federal land in Tennessee, when a forensic scientist wanted to test his hypothesis that Lewis committed suicide after struggling with alcoholism, depression and syphilis.
But as Bess Lovejoy writes in the November 28th edition of the New York Times, "If evidence of these conditions had been found, would the explorer–now a minor national hero–have wanted that information made public?"
If we can’t keep our secrets after death, when can we? (NOTE: Subscribers can still listen to this exciting interview). Lovejoy quotes the carving on Shakespeare’s headstone in Holy Trinity Church, in Stratford-upon-Avon in the UK that was put there to deter body snatchers (who sold corpses to doctors for medical study), but it could also be carved on many gravestones today: "Good friend for Jesus sake forbear to dig the dust enclosed here! Blest be the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones."
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