The history of Edinburgh and the history of body snatching go hand in hand. As evidence, residents of the capital city once were so concerned about ending up on the anatomist’s table rather than lying in eternal rest that they invested in elaborate cage-like tombs to prevent such a thing.
There were many types of these so-called “mortsafes” ranging from iron cages to heavy stone table tombstones or concrete boxes. There are several intact examples around Scotland, including those at Colinton, St Michael’s Church, and Logierait in Perthshire, Scotland, but the two cages at Greyfriars are amongst the most famous.
In addition to these protected graves, concerned mourners inspired particularly by the horrors of the Burke and Hare body snatching cases also created watch groups dedicated to monitoring the comings and goings in local churchyards.
A shortage of available bodies for aspiring and practicing physicians to study and dissect led to an ever-increasing epidemic of grave robbing for medical use. Between 1827-1828 William Burke and William Hare lured in and murdered their lodgers in a scheme to provide fresh bodies to the local anatomy school. Dr. Robert Knox, a brilliant and well known local anatomy lecturer, purchased the bodies and most likely knew that something was a bit suspicious about his supply chain. The duo were finally exposed, and Burke was hanged in Edinburgh in January of 1829. His death mask, skeleton, and a book bound in his skin are at the Surgeon’s Hall Museum.
The Anatomy Act of 1832 effectively put an end to the panic by finally making it legal for anatomists to obtain enough cadavers in a legal manner, but the few remaining mortsafes reveal just how real the threat once was.
Know Before You Go
The Mort Safes are rather easy to spot. They are on the left hand side of the Kirk/Church, just a few yards from the Main Entrance near the statue of "Bobby".
As with most cemeteries in Scotland they are open at all hours. Though this does entice a nefarious element of citizenry to conduct illicit activity. So, use your sound judgement when enter the grounds, especially under the cover of darkness.
There is a gravel path that leads up to the safes, but be aware that the ground can be quite uneven and muddy.