The young, beautiful and rich widow Giertrud Birgitte Bodenhoff was buried in Assistens cemetery, Copenhagen on 23 July 1798 but was she dead? Family stories claimed she had been buried alive but unconscious (skindød in Danish) from an excess of opium. They suggest that when grave robbers opened her coffin to steal her jewellery, she woke up and they killed her to conceal their crime. An exhumation on the 9 January 1953 took place to investigate the stories. The posture of the skeleton in the coffin combined with other evidence led to the conclusion that she had been murdered. With advances in forensic taphonomy (understanding processes happening after burial), this conclusion requires re-interpretation. The burial environment is not static and the skeleton will not always be in the same position it was placed in at the time of burial, or indeed after being left by grave robbers. The evidence can be tested against body positions found in other coffins excavated archaeologically. The story also provokes questions on how we assess other burials with the same interpretation. The fear of being buried alive is long attested and the Bodenhoff story is used as a Gothic horror story for tourists. Perhaps the fascination with such stories, particularly one involving a prominent member of society is inevitable and will never disappear but they continue to be used to create a darker ‘other’ sense to cemeteries.
Sian Anthony 2017
Lunds Universitet, Sweden
The fear and fascination with premature burial
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