Grave Robbing
rating: 0+x

Three lawyers were attending the funeral for one of their friends. As they came up to the open casket to pay their last respects, one of them said: "You know, in ancient times they used to put coins on a dead man's eyes so that the deceased could pay Charon to ferry him across the river Styx." He thought a moment, then pulled a hundred dollar bill out of his wallet and placed it in the pocket of the dead man's jacket. "Ferryman's fee," he said.

The second lawyer was moved by this gesture of kindness, and so he too took a hundred dollar bill from his wallet and placed it in the deceased pocket. "Safe voyage, old friend."

The third lawyer decided he was not to be outdone. So he wrote a check for three hundred dollars, and took the other two bills as change.

Basic Information

Just because a guy's dead, doesn't mean you can't steal from him.

For millennia, kings and emperors have tried to disprove the saying that you can't take it with you, only to demonstrate that you can take it with you but then someone's going to dig you up and steal it away from you anyway.

Grave robbers are the bane of the archaeologist's existence. When a tomb is discovered, the chances are good that tomb robbers have been there first — probably before the body was even cold — and pilfered all the good stuff. Of course, the line between archaeology and grave-robbing can be blurred - in the early days of , the enthusiastic amateurs who pioneered the science were often little better than grave robbers themselves and there remains considerable debate about just when human remains become available for archaeological study.

At the petty end of the scale, we have low life crooks digging up a coffin to extract the gold fillings from the deceased's teeth or any valuables that might have been buried with him. At the high end, we have Heinrich Schliemann obliterating several layers of history while looking for Trojan gold.

The kings of ancient Egypt were very conscious of the problem of tomb robbers and went to great lengths to discourage them, ranging from guards, to inscribed curses, to elaborate tombs to baffle the thieves. They would even kill the architects and builders of their tombs so that no living person would know their secret. It didn't matter. In nearly every case, the robbers won in the end.

But grave robbers are not always just looking for the dead man's stuff. Sometimes they are out to steal the corpse itself. This particularly gruesome form of grave robbing was called body-snatching and its practitioners called themselves "resurrectionists". In the 18th and early 19th Centuries, it was not uncommon for medical schools and their students to hire these Resurrection Men to provide cadavers for them to study.

Besides the anatomical trade, there was also the demand for things like mummia, which could only be satisfied by grave robbing, and other things that required corpse parts - mainly various kinds of occultism. Necromancy in particular placed a high value on the parts of dead people whose soul or spirit could be profitably summoned and bound.

See Also:


Game and Story Use

  • When you come right down to it, a lot of classic Dungeon Fantasy involves nothing more than grave robbing.
  • You might have the highest motives in exploring a forbidden crypt, but the people whose ancestor you're despoiling might not see it the same way.
  • An adventure might involve trying to recover a treasure that has already been stolen from a tomb. That does put the PC's on a slightly higher ethical level.
  • In a fantasy setting, PCs may well have to deal with a "necromancer" stealing and animating the dead from a cemetery, or, as in Clark Ashton Smith's Empire of the Necromancers, an entire dead nation re-animated.
  • PCs may find a dead comrade's spirit interrogated for their secrets by a hostile necromancer - or worse still, animated and brought up to fight them. In a more black-and-grey campaign they themselves may need to recover information from a dead PC or NPC who has already been buried.
    • The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (he of the eponymous principle) involved something distinctly similar … the dead of many ages stolen, processed and … occasionally successfully … resurrected.
  • Perhaps they need a Hand of Glory or something else that can only be built with corpse parts…
  • Humans are not the only robbers of graves … other species, from hyenas to ghouls have a more basic interest in corpses.
  • In a non-fantasy campaign, PCs may need to perform an illicit exhumation to recover evidence from a corpse whose relatives oppose having it done officially. The GM will need a reason (probably religious) for the family not having arranged for a cremation to better hide the evidence and for the state not intervening.
    • Possibly the dead person was significant moderating influence in a fairly volatile minority community. He has been murdered by radical elements who are trying to take over but the community in question have been persuaded that the death was natural and incited to resist an autopsy. Any official attempt at exhumation will lead to rioting, but if the community elders were persuaded that the previous leader was murdered it might be enough to have the radicals driven out. Can the PCs 'borrow' the corpse for long enough to extract the evidence they need without starting a riot?
  • In the modern era, the demand for cadavers for medical research (including training surgeons, physicians, nurses and other species of medic) continues to outstrip supply … it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that body snatching might make a comeback, or, as in the finest Burke and Hare tradition, that the resurrection men might not wait for people to die of their own accord.
  • If the PCs are looking for clues or treasure in a tomb, someone else might have removed it before them. Maybe even without knowing what it was or how important it is. Time to go looking for black market relics!
  • Of course, if the deceased really is using these grave goods in the afterlife, stealing them from his tomb may lead to consequences.
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License