Exhumation - Lawful disinterment or digging out of a buried body from the grave


By exhumation is meant the lawful disinterment or digging out of a buried body from the grave. It is sometimes necessary (1) for purposes of identification, and (2) to determine the cause of death, when foul play is suspected. As the Hindus who form a majority of population cremate their dead within a few hours, exhumation in India is quite rare.

In India, no time limit is fixed for exhumation of a body. A police officer cannot order it as, normally the dead are not to be disturbed and, some sanctity is attached to the grave. Only a magistrate or a coroner can therefore order it in the interest of Justice.

An exhumation like all other examinations should be a planned operation and the following are the practical aspects of the procedure with the necessary precautions to be taken. The procedure can be divided into:

  1. General precautions
  2. Identification and opening the grave and collection of samples of Earth
  3. Identification of the coffin and collection of samples
  4. Identification of the body and its viewing by magistrate or coroner, and
  5. An autopsy, if necessary.

General Precautions:

Exhumation should be carried out under the supervision of the medical officer and in the presence of a police officer after obtaining a specific order from magistrate or coroner.The police officer provides witnesses to identify the grave, the coffin, and the dead body. It is necessary to carry out exhumation in early morning before cemetery is open to the public so that there is some degree of privacy and the whole process of digging, and an autopsy if required, can be completed during the day, and the reburial of the body effected.

Identification and Opening the Grave:

The grave is formally identified by the warden of the cemetery from the records, and the exact site by friends and relations who may have been present at the time of burial. The sexton and caretaker may confirm this identification procedure. A tarpaulin screen is erected around the grave. It is then dug up carefully to avoid damage to the coffin and its contents. In a suspected case of poisoning, samples of earth in a quantity of about 500 grams are collected from above, below and sides of the coffin and control samples at some distance from it in separate clean, dry, glass bottles for chemical analysis. It is advisable to be cognizant of the nature or geological layout of the cemetery and direction of any water drainage. If the grave is waterlogged, samples of water should also be taken.

Identification of the Coffin:

The coffin top should be cleaned up and the name plate exposed. This should be identified by the original Undertaker who made it, and its photograph is of value. The coffin can then be raised to the surface, and before examining the contents the lid is lifted to allow the escape of gases. To avoid inhaling offensive gases, one should stand on the windward side and use a gauze mask to cover the face. If the coffin contains water, it should be drained off, the total volume with sludge measured, and sample collected for analysis. Further samples are collected from coffin wood and burial clothes to exclude any possibility of contamination from external sources.

Identification of the Body

An attempt is then made to identify the body by any person who was present when the body was placed in the coffin. The magistrate or coroner views the body and orders for reburial or an autopsy, if necessary.


Disinfectants should not be sprinkled on the body and care should be taken to ensure that gloves worn are in a perfect condition. A full autopsy must be carried out in the usual manner preferably in the mortuary when possible or near the grave yard, and the autopsy report duly prepared. The following hints are important.

It is absolutely necessary that the doctor should have complete history of the case so that his attention properly directed to important points. The body should be photographed and if necessary x-ray examination of the body should be undertaken. The injuries, if any, should be described in detail. Since soft tissue injuries may disappear due to decomposition, fracture of the bones such as the skull, hyoid and ribs, should be specially looked for. The possibility of such fractures being produced during the process of digging should be kept in mind. It should be remembered that ununited pieces of sternum, costal cartilages and epiphyses of long bones may also be mistaken for fractures in children.

Any organ or part that may appear to offer any evidence should be removed for further examination and/ or chemical analysis of the chemical examiner. If organs are not distinguishable, masses obtained from the areas of these organs should be preserved. If viscera are not present hair, nails, teeth, bones and skin should be collected.

Before leaving the place, the medical officer should ensure that he has taken all specimens that may be required for subsequent examination as it may not be possible to re-examine the body, once reburial has been effected.

By: Navin Kumar Jaggi & Aashna Suri


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