Ethics for Funeral Service Professionals: A Case Study on Grave Robbing

by Alice Adams | Apr 30, 2018
Ethics for Funeral Service Professionals

The history of grave robbery dates back all the way to the rise of ancient Egyptian civilizations. Archeologists believe that most of the tombs in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, including that of King Tut, were targeted by greedy tomb raiders. Documented evidence suggests that these tombs were robbed within 100 years of being sealed. But Egypt wasn’t the only early civilization to experience these crimes.

Beginning in 166-201 A.D., as Etruscan dentists began using gold to fill teeth, dental gold (often the entire, gold-filled tooth) was targeted by grave robbing scoundrels around the world.

Decades of robbery and destruction of burial sites plagued the early Romans. It was long believed that Chinese royalty during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) were laid to rest in highly-polished jade burial suits, but modern archeologists have found very few such artifacts. They believe many were stolen and sold centuries earlier.

A common misconception is that grave robbery was an occupation for the very poor. However, great names in art, such as Michelangelo and Leonardo de Vinci, paid underlings to supply corpses from local graveyards. These were used in their studios so the artists could study the human anatomy in order to paint or carve their masterpieces more authentically.

In Europe, the aristocracy could afford mort safes, mort houses and grave collars, which fastened around the necks of corpses and bolted them to the floor of the coffin. These safety measures helped protect the dead from robbers. Wealthy families could also invest in private mausoleums to house their dead and prevent them from being disturbed by desecrators.

Grave robbing spiked in the U.S. during the time after the Civil War until the Great Depression. Grave robbers sought old and valuable jewelry to sell. Others managed to make more in a more legitimate way by supplying exhumed bodies of soldiers for medical study.

Grave robbery continues in the 21st century with increases in technology such as night-vision goggles, GPS and metal detectors. In recent years, thieves have focused on the low-hanging fruit in cemeteries – the brass vases attached to grave markers. These items are highly in demand and the crime has become very common. Some cemetery owners have resorted to removing the brass vases, replacing them with plastic vases and compensating the families.

A more recent robbery case however, did not require disturbing any graves. In January 2018, the owners of a Montrose, Colorado funeral home were discovered removing gold-filled teeth from their customers. They amassed such a large collection, they were able to finance an extended family trip to Disneyland.

It is completely legal for funeral directors to retrieve and sell items from a corpse left in their care. It is also legal to sell pacemakers and artificial limbs, hips and knees. Funeral directors can even sell body parts for research and education. While the Colorado funeral directors were not breaking any laws, their side business is considered unethical among their peers in the funeral service profession.

This case of “grave robbing” highlights an importance difference between what is legal and what is ethical. Funeral directors are often in a position which requires great tact and care. Grieving family and friends means the demand for funeral directors to act ethically is even higher.

WebCE offers several valuable courses covering a variety of ethics-related topics. Funeral directors and funeral service professionals should always strive to increase their knowledge and standards when it comes to ethically and effectively working with clients.

Check out the following ethics funeral CE courses and other topics from FuneralCE:

  • Working Ethically with Seniors
  • Communicating Effectively with Seniors
To order these courses and more, visit or call 877-332-8480 to speak to a member of our support services team.

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