Picture of a "Grave Cage"

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Grave Cage

Grave Cage
Netlore Archive: Were iron "grave cages" placed over burial sites during the Victorian era to prevent vampires and zombies from returning from the dead?. Viral image via Facebook

Description: Viral image
Circulating since: 2012
Status: False

Photo caption:
As shared on Facebook, Oct. 24, 2012:

This is a grave from the Victorian age when a fear of zombies and vampires was prevalent. The cage was intended to trap the undead just in case the corpse reanimated.

Analysis: The photo above is presumably authentic — structures like this really exist — but the caption is entirely false. The wrought-iron "cage" covering the grave site is actually known as a mortsafe. Mortsafes were invented in the early 1800s to keep grave robbers out, not the "undead" in.

This overview of mortsafes and their intended function is from the December 19, 1896 issue of The Hospital, a British medical journal:

It is now more than sixty years since the Anatomy Act was passed, and there are probably few who remember, except as a tradition, the horrors of the preceding time, when the medical schools were supplied with subjects for dissection chiefly by men who stole corpses from the grave. These men were called body-snatchers, or, in a slang phrase, "resurrection men." Respect for the dead made the idea of this violation of the grave horrible to the survivors, and various means were devised to secure that the bodies of the beloved dead should remain undisturbed. The iron coffin, instead of the usual wooden one, was so intended. A heavy iron cage, called a "mortsafe," was another. Mortsafes were of various kinds. Some formed almost a house of iron bars, with a locked gate to it. Others lay flat on the grave, and consisted sometimes entirely of iron, and sometimes of a border of strong masonry with iron bars on the top.

Mortsafes rendered obsolete by Anatomy Act of 1832

Alas, these extraordinary measures, though "probably highly effective" in protecting graves, according to Dr. Martyn Gorman of the University of Aberdeen, were only available to the rich. The scourge of body snatching continued in England and Scotland until public outrage drove Parliament to pass the Anatomy Act of 1832, which legalized the use of donated or unclaimed bodies for anatomical dissection, rendering the stolen corpse trade — and mortsafes — superfluous and obsolete.

Vampires and zombies in the 1800s

As for any purported connection between the use of mortsafes and vampires and zombies, the notion that a fear of the "undead" was so rife in Victorian England that people would have taken extraordinary measures to defend against them is not merely wrong, but wrongheaded to boot. Educated Britons were indeed familiar with the concept of vampirism via popular literature and scholarly discussions, but in the main it appears they regarded the belief in blood-sucking fiends risen from the grave as a quaint superstition peculiar to foreigners. The word zombie and its associated superstitions originated in West Africa and Haiti, and were all but unknown in the English-speaking world until popularized in books and films of the early twentieth century.

Sources and further reading:

Greyfriars Cemetery Mortsafes
Atlas Obscura

The Resurrectionist of Old
The Hospital, 19 December 1896

The Diary of a Resurrectionist, 1811-1812
London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1896

An Introduction to Grave Robbing in Scotland
University of Aberdeen, 2010

Body Snatching - A Common Practice 200 Years Ago
Daily Mail, 30 October 2012

Zombies: The Real Story of the Undead
LiveScience, 10 October 2012

The Anatomy Act of 1832
Science Museum, London

Last updated 11/26/15