Magazine

Yasser Arafat: 10 other people who have been exhumed

  • 27 November 2012
  • From the section Magazine
A composite image showing (in clockwise order) Yasser Arafat, Charlie Chaplin, the embalmed body of Eva Peron, the exhumation in 2000 of a man who said he was Jesse James, and Marie Curie. Images AP and Getty

The remains of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat have been exhumed to investigate allegations he was murdered. The bodies of many well-known people have been dug up in the course of history, for myriad reasons. Here is a selection.

1. Oliver Cromwell

The English soldier and statesman died in 1658, was embalmed, had a state funeral and was then buried in Westminster Abbey. After the Restoration, he and two others were exhumed and beheaded. His corpse is believed to have been thrown into a pit at the execution site, which is near modern-day Marble Arch in London. His head was stuck on a pole and displayed on the roof of Westminster Hall. During the 18th Century it was regarded as a collector's item. The head was analysed in 1815 and confirmed to be that of Cromwell.

2. Jesse James

Rumours abounded that the notorious American gangster had faked his own death in 1882, so the body presumed to be his was exhumed in 1995 for DNA testing. The tests indicated that it was indeed his corpse, as the DNA was consistent with that of his known descendants. But a further two bodies were later exhumed - including that of a man who had claimed in life to be the real Jesse James.

3. Haile Selassie

Ethiopia's last emperor was exhumed after being discovered buried under a toilet in Addis Ababa's Imperial Palace, in 1992. Haile Selassie ruled Ethiopia for 45 years and was regarded as a living god by Rastafarians. He was overthrown in a coup led by the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1974, and held captive for a year in the palace before he died. It is thought he may have been murdered by his captors. In 2000, more than 25 years after his death, he was reburied in Addis Ababa's Trinity Cathedral.

4. Evita

The wife of Argentine President Juan Peron was embalmed - but after a military coup in the mid-1950s the country's new rulers wanted the body out of the way. Removed by dead of night from a trade union headquarters in Buenos Aires, it probably spent time in a van parked on the streets of the city, behind a cinema screen, and inside the city's waterworks, as well as in the offices of Military Intelligence. In 1957, with covert help from the Vatican, she was buried in Milan, Italy, under a false name. Graffiti began to appear in Buenos Aires asking "Where is the body of Evita Peron?" In 1971 the body was disinterred and driven to Juan Peron's new home in Madrid. Two years later, he was again elected President of Argentina, but died soon after. His third wife, Isabel, oversaw the repatriation of Evita's body to Argentina. She now lies in her family's mausoleum, in a crypt fortified like a nuclear bunker.

5. Charlie Chaplin

The comedian's body was dug up in March 1978 by two men who reburied it in a cornfield, and began demanding a ransom from Chaplin's lawyer. Taken from the village cemetery in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland, where the comic actor had spent the last 25 years of his life, it was returned to the same grave three months later, following the arrest of the grave robbers - refugees from Poland and Bulgaria. This time, however, the vault was made of reinforced concrete. The village gravedigger who discovered the theft said there was no chance of the body again being spirited away at night. "You would need a pneumatic drill to open that vault," he said. "And that is bound to make a lot of noise."

6. Elizabeth Siddal

When the wife of English artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti died from an opiate overdose in 1862, Rossetti buried a book of his poetry alongside her. Years later, and with his eyesight failing, making it harder to paint, he decided to retrieve the poems. For this, he needed permission from the Home Secretary, as grave-robberies were a big problem at the time. This was granted, though Rossetti wanted the operation to be kept as secret as possible. The grave slab at Highgate Cemetery in London was removed, the coffin prised open, and the manuscript removed and disinfected. He was said to be disappointed that the poem he had most wanted had a "great worm-hole through every page" - though a significant volume of poems from the exhumation did appear.

7. Marie Curie

The ashes of Marie Curie and her husband Pierre were moved in 1995 from a small cemetery to the Pantheon in Paris. This was done in order to honour her life and work. The Polish-born scientist won two Nobel prizes and did ground-breaking work on radiation. She died from leukaemia in 1934 (caused by exposure to radiation).

8. Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus asked in his will to be buried in America, but no suitable church existed there at his death in 1506, so he was buried initially in the Spanish city of Valladolid, then moved to a monastery in Seville. In 1542, however, the body was removed and sent to Hispaniola, where it was buried in Santo Domingo (now the capital of the Dominican Republic). At the end of the 17th Century, Spain ceded the western part of Hispaniola to France, so Columbus's body was taken to Cuba. Then, when Cuba became independent, in 1898, the body crossed the Atlantic for a final time and was buried in the Cathedral of Seville. At least, that is the established theory. There is, however, a box containing bones, inscribed with the name "Christopher Columbus" at a Columbus monument in the Dominican capital... Researchers who took DNA samples from the Seville body say it matches the DNA of Columbus's brother Diego, also buried near Seville. The remains in Santo Domingo have never been released for testing.

9. Virginia Poe

Virginia Clemm married her first cousin, American author Edgar Allan Poe, at the age of 13, and died of tuberculosis at 24, in 1847. She was originally buried in the vault of the family from whom the Poes rented their cottage in Fordham, near New York. In 1875 the cemetery was destroyed, and a few years later one of Poe's biographers, William Gill, took possession of her bones - apparently, just at the point the sexton was about to throw them away. For a while, Gill stored the bones in a box under his bed. Five years later they were buried with her husband's in a tomb built for the author in 1875 in Westminster Hall and Burying Ground (now part of the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore) as a replacement for his original simple grave in the same burial ground.

10. Che Guevara

Che Guevara speaking at an international development conference in Geneva (1964)

The Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary leader was captured and shot in Bolivia in 1967. For years the exact location of his body was kept secret, then in 1995 it was revealed by a Bolivian general involved in the operation that he had been buried by an airport runway, near the site where he was killed. Two years later, his body was exhumed and returned to Cuba in time for the commemoration of the 30th anniversary of his death. It now lies in a mausoleum and museum to Guevara, which is open to visitors. Some questions have been raised, however, as to whether the correct body was exhumed in 1997.

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