Three of the most scandalous exhumations in history


Digging up the dead is a sinister practice. In the dawn of medicine, students stole corpses (frequently those of deceased blacks) in an effort to learn more about human anatomy. In modern criminal proceedings, the bodies of both the victims and the accused are often exhumed to determine innocence or guilt.

In the meantime, some exhumations are nothing short of nasty cases of political wrangling, in which the corpses of the dead have become pawns for the mighty.

Consider three of the strangest incidents in history: the corpse of an Italian Pope Formosuswho was excavated for a trial by his successor in the ninth century; the body of Dante Alighieriwhom Florence banished in life and sought in vain in death for years; and Eva Perón, the First Lady of Argentina, who spent nearly two decades of her death in invisible exile in Italy.

The return of a deceased Pope

Western Europe was extremely turbulent in the ninth century: Dynasties, kingdoms and empires rose and fell constantly. In 896 AD, Pope Formosus crowned a Frankish king, Arnulf, as the new Holy Roman Emperor. This was badly received by the city of Spoleto, from which the King of Italy and former Roman-German Emperor Lambert descended.

During the preparations for the attack on Spoleto, Arnulf fell ill and had to return to Germany. Formosus himself died not long later.

Unsurprisingly, Lambert and the Spoletans were not satisfied with Formosus, and they had missed their chance for revenge. Lambert asked the successor of Formosus, Stephan the Sixth, to dig up the body of the former Pope and bring him to court at a meeting of bishops to decide a serious question of faith. The resulting Cadaver Synod was a trumped-up charge involving a body that had been buried for nine months – probably athletic bare, bleached bones – was seated on a throne in papal robes to face his charges. Meanwhile, a deacon stood behind the corpse to give her answers.

Unsurprisingly, Formosus was found guilty: his election and actions as Pope were voided, his fingers of consecration were cut off, and his body was dragged through the streets of Rome and temporarily buried before being thrown into the Tiber.

This began an extremely turbulent time in papal history. Pope Stephen was removed from office within months and later imprisoned and strangled to death. His successor, Pope Romanus, took the body out of the river. Pope Theodore II then reinstated Formosus and had his body reburied in St. Peter’s Basilica during his 20-day term. Between 896 and 904 AD there were no fewer than seven popes, some of whom had their predecessors murdered in order to usurp the papacy.

Dig up Dante

No less bizarre – albeit a lot less bloody – it was battle on the body of the so-called secular saint of Italy, Dante Alighieri. He wrote La divina commedia, or The Divine Comedy, and is undoubtedly one of the most famous writers of all time. It turned out that his death was almost as interesting as his well-studied life.

Born in Florence, Italy in 1265, Dante grew up proud of his city and its development. Italy was a divided region at the time: Typically, people were not loyal to the peninsula as a whole (which not yet united as a country), but in their city. He fought as a cavalryman for Florence, got married there and wrote a lot there. He made many of his closest and earliest friends with leading Florentine intellectuals such as Guido Cavalcanti, a famous poet.

It wouldn’t take time, however. The political dispute in Florence led to his exile in 1302. After efforts to secure a military return failed, he turned to his work in hopes that his writing might secure his return. But it shouldn’t be. Dante died in 1321 in Ravenna, Italy, the last city of his exile.

Dante’s fame soon blossomed, and Florence began its attempts to recapture its abandoned son. Two attempts in 1396 and 1429 failed. In 1519, Florence asked the Pope to return Dante’s bones. The Pope agreed.

But a surprise awaited the papal delegation. When they reached the Basilica of San Francesco, they found the sarcophagus empty. Dante’s bones were kept by Franciscan friars who, when they heard the news from the arriving delegation, hid them in a hole in the wall before taking them to the monastery. They stayed there until 1677 when a monk recognized the bones and exhibited them.

In 1782 a mausoleum was built in Ravenna for Dante’s remains and transferred there. But in 1810 Napoleon Bonaparte, who at that time was at the height of his power and lost patience with the church, demanded the abolition of the religious orders: the property of these rulers should be confiscated and sold by the state. Italy then came under Napoleon’s rule. To avoid looting the tomb, the brothers moved the body into what was once a gate between the basilica and the Braccioforte chapel.

Its bones were not found until 1865 when they were reassembled and buried. There was only one short break: the bones were removed in 1944 and buried nearby to protect them from bombing during World War I. But they were returned in 1945.

Florence never recaptured its wandering son: the splendid tomb of the Basilica of Santa Croce is now empty. But every year, on the anniversary of Dante’s death, his hometown sends olive oil to Ravenna to be burned in a donated lamp.

Evita is exhumed

We travel from Europe in the early and middle centuries to South America in the 20th century, when Argentina had great civil and political experiences Restlessness. Eva Perón, once the first lady of Argentina, was to become a powerful symbol of dissent among people – one that the ruling class sometimes felt threatened by. After her death only her symbolic power elevated.

Born in 1919, she worked as a radio actress before marrying Col. Juan Perón in 1945. A year later he became president. She held considerable political power as first lady, and Perón gave the unions generous pay increases to gain her support. After she stopped funding traditional aid organizations, she set up her own Eva Perón Foundation, which built thousands of hospitals, schools and orphanages, among other things. She founded the Peronista Feminist Party in 1949 and is considered to be instrumental in the adoption of women’s suffrage in Argentina.

In 1952, Perón died of cancer at the age of only 33. But death did not diminish her strength; rather, it did the opposite.

In 1955 the military took power in Argentina and General Eduardo Lonardi established a military dictatorship. Juan Perón had to flee the country, Eva Perón became a posthumous symbol of resistance. Her followers even tried to canonize her. But because they sensed a threat to their power, the military stole her body and hid her in Italy for 16 years.

It wasn’t until 1971 that another military government finally returned her body to Juan Perón, who was living in exile in Spain. Perón eventually returned to Argentina and became president again in 1973, but died just a year later. His third wife and vice-president, Isabel Perón, became the world’s first female president in 1974. To gain popular support, she had Eva’s remains interred with Juans in the presidential palace.

Two years later, another military government removed the bodies. Eva Perón’s final resting place: her family’s grave in Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires.


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