Grave Robbing

    Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
    In some areas, graverobbing is an honorable family business.
    "And it's my job... to steal and rob... GRAAAAAAAAAAVESSSSS!"

    A grave robber (or Tomb Raider) digs up a grave or breaks into a crypt or mausoleum to steal the corpse inside, whether it be for medical research, profit by selling the body to medical researchers (which used to be done by shady professions called Bodysnatchers or Resurrectionists), resurrection of the dead, or... whatever reason. This also includes stealing treasure, valuables, and Artifacts Of Doom that happen to be buried with the corpse, not just the corpse itself, especially if the tomb belonged to royalty. In some situations this can also include vandalism of the corpse if the robber is trying to make a statement or just feels especially spiteful.

    This practice is generally frowned upon, and modern archaeologists have been avoiding burial sites for some time now. Not only is desecrating the body after death considered extremely offensive in the overwhelming majority of cultures, it's also kind of gross. Either way, stealing a body from the grave and any items buried with it still counts as theft and is therefore illegal.

    This is often part of The Igor's job description. This is the primary way of encountering a Mummy.

    If they happened to have fought Aliens and Monsters before taking the crypt's stuff, it probably counts as Plunder.

    Not to be confused with Tomb Raiding.

    As a Death Trope, Spoilers ahead may be unmarked. Beware.

    Examples of Grave Robbing include:

    Anime and Manga

    • Bakura, the Tombrobber. Some justification in that his start was robbing from the evil kings who sacrifice his village for dark magic.
      • Besides, he was also the self-pronounced "King of the Thieves", and generally believed that it was within his right to steal whatever the hell he wanted.
    • Naruto: How exactly did Madara get all those Uchiha eyes?
      • And then he's actually shown stealing Nagato's eyes, from his tomb.
        • And then Kabuto doesn't even pretend that he got the bodies and DNA samples that he uses for Edo Tensei, without doing so. He even states "I mean, I was basically grave robbing", and with a smile, no less.

    Comic Books

    • Used for a Stealth Pun/Cameo in Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning's DC Comics Elseworld The Superman Monster, which combines the Superman mythos with Frankenstein. Mad Scientist Victor Luthor is provided with corpses by a resurrectionist who is clearly this universe's counterpart of Mitch Shelley, the Resurrection Man.
    • In a Spider-Man story, the Hand was brazen enough to dig up Doctor Octopus's corpse from a public cemetery in broad daylight in order to enact the evil ritual that restored him to life. As one might expect, Peter and Mary Jane were rather shaken about it after seeing it on the news.

    Films -- Live-Action

    • The 1945 film The Body Snatcher, directed by Robert Wise, starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. This was based on a Robert Louis Stevenson short story of the same that was Very Loosely Based on a True Story of Burke and Hare (body snatchers who graduated to murder when they couldn't obtain enough corpses to meet demand).
      • Actually that's a common misconception. Burke and Hare never robbed graves but went straight to creating their own bodies. The doctor who bought them was always impressed at how fresh they were.
    • Plan 9 from Outer Space
    • Repo! The Genetic Opera has a singing, dancing Mr. Exposition in the Graverobber (played by the fantastic Terrence Zdunich). He slinks around stealing Zydrate from dead bodies and telling us how this Crapsack World came to be. And does it really, really earwormily, as shown in the page quote.
    • Speaking of Indiana Jones , an instance of him being accused of being a grave robber was recounted at the banquet in Temple of Doom.
    • In one of the Friday the 13 th movies, Jason is accidentally resurrected by Lightning Can Do Anything when a survivor from the last film dug up his corpse.
    • As can be expected from the title, Young Frankenstein has an example of this.
    • The Phantasm films feature large-scale graverobbing by the Tall Man, who animates and shrinks the dead to provide slave labor on another planet (or another dimension, other time, etc).
    • The main characters In Plunkett and Macleane meet when James Macleane attempts to take a ruby from a buried thief in the cemetary. However, Will Plunkett was already waiting and takes it for himself at gunpoint.
    • Mr. Sardonicus gained his trademark Frozen Face when he dug up his father's grave for the Lottery Ticket that was left in his pocket and the sight of his father's smiling corpse frightened him to no end.
    • Most versions of Frankenstein's Monster have this as the primary method of retrieving "materials" for the creation of the monster.


    • Jerry Cruncher's side job in A Tale of Two Cities.
    • In The Bible, Mary Magdalene believes this is what happened to Jesus' body until she finds proof otherwise.
    • Voldemort steals the Elder Wand from Dumbledore's tomb in the last book of the series. This backfires epically.
      • And Bill Weasley works as a cursebreaker for Gringott's tomb raiding expeditions in Egypt.
    • In Andre Norton's Witchworld, taking a weapon from a tomb was considered acceptable in some cultures. One just had to ask the dead corpse for it. No corpse has so far risen to smite those who did it.
    • In Lynda Robinson's Lord Meren mystery series, the tomb of heretic pharaoh Akhenaten is broken into, and his body dismembered, by his vengeful political enemies. Their intention is to deny him an afterlife.
    • Played for Laughs in A Night in the Lonesome October: not only do all the Players, good guys or bad, engage in the practice, but one night they all raid the same cemetery at the same time, and commence trading the excavated body parts needed for their various rituals and schemes.
      • By throwing them to one another, no less. "Oi, here's that liver yer wantin'. Catch!"
    • In Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, this is what Dr. Robinson, Injun Joe and Muff Potter are doing in the graveyard (presumably for medical research, as the ringleader is a doctor) until Joe murders Robinson.
    • The antiheroes of H P Lovecraft's The Hound are a pair of ghoulish guys who rob graves for fun.
      • The actual Ghouls in his other stories rob graves for food.
    • The Orcs, sorry, Shanka inhabiting the ruined city in Joe Abercrombie's Before They Are Hanged live on dead bodies from mass graves.
    • In Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian story "Black Colossus" a thief among thieves is trying for the great treasure.

    Many a thief sought to gain the treasure which fables said lay heaped about the moldering bones inside the dome. And many a thief died at the door of the tomb, and many another was harried by monstrous dreams to die at last with the froth of madness on his lips.

      • In The Hour of the Dragon, necessary to revive the Big Bad.
    • Committed a couple times by the protagonists of Dracula, since vampires sleep in their coffins. Some of them really take issue with it at first.
    • Return of the Archwizards trilogy begins with an elven tomb guards' routine patrol detects what they think is yet another desecration by a bunch of human "adventurers". It Got Worse when these specific humans turned out to be extremely uninterested in the tomb stuffed with traps, magic and valuables other than as a place marker.
    • The Matthew Hawkwood novel Resurrectionist is about the grave robbing trade that supplied the medical schools in Regency England.
    • The resurrectionist trade is also the subject of Robert Louis Stevenson's 1884 horror short story "The Body Snatcher", the basis of the above-mentioned movie of the same name.

    Live-Action TV

    • On Supernatural the most common and effective way to defeat the ghost is by finding the bones and burning them. This will almost always lead to a scene of the boys acting as grave robbers.
    • House and his team did this once. Obviously a medical benefit, probably for the patient at the time.
      • Well, yeah. They're a bit late to provide any benefit to the patient they're digging up.
    • Night Gallery episode "Deliveries in the Rear". A doctor uses grave robbers to obtain bodies for dissection.
    • On Pushing Daisies, Dwight Dixon robs Chuck's father's grave in order to get his gold pocketwatch. Ned and Chuck later dig up Chuck's father and bring him back to life so that they can find out the truth about Dwight.
      • In the first season episodes "Pie-lette" and "The Fun in Funeral" has the Schatz brothers, who own a funeral home, and regularly steal valuables from corpses.
    • Larry, Darryl and Darryl of Newhart were first introduced when they were hired to dig up a long-dead body.
    • Obligatory Buffy the Vampire Slayer reference - when Giles hears about graves opened from the outside his academic curiosity is stirred:

    Giles: Grave robbing - that's new...interesting!
    Buffy: I know you meant to say "gross and disturbing!"
    Giles: Yes, yes, of course. Terrible thing; must...must put a stop to it. ...umm, dammit!

    • On Lost, Charles Widmore took this trope to extremes when he had 324 graves in Thailand dug up just so he could create a fake wreckage of Oceanic 815.


    Tabletop Games

    • Every third Dungeon Crawling in any game involves breaking into an ancient tomb full of wondrous relics, and looting it. Some parties make multiple trips.
    • Call of Cthulhu (tabletop game). In several adventures ghouls are noted as stealing grave jewelry and other valuables buried with the dead.
      • And eating the dead.
    • Many Magic: The Gathering cards are based around this, usually allowing the exhumed creature to be played again.
    • Dungeons & Dragons has enough of it to make twists and subversions relatively common.
      • The Ravenloft adventure Ship of Horrors pits heroes against a grave-robbing clan of reanimated corpses which provide bodies to a nasty necromancer.
        • According to Van Richten's Guide to the Lich, there's even a high-level spell Ghoul Lattice that makes the work easy by digging a maze of tunnels that connects to all graves and other underground pockets in area that may be a mile or more wide.
        • Robbing graves is one of many, many misdeeds that may warrant a Powers check in this game-setting.
      • Forgotten Realms sourcebooks and novels has "fun" with long-dead (and of course sometimes un-dead) people's tombs. This includes things like...
        • "Tomb robbers" turning out to be a bunch of ghouls, eating corpses but always ready to diversify the diet.
        • "Tomb robbers" turning out to be there about a certain Sealed Evil in a Can, so a clash with tomb guards accidentally breaks the can, which they otherwise could avoid.
        • Adventurers breaking and entering a crypt only to face a room seemingly empty except one old man with a pipe, who answered the obvious question by stunning everyone (as in "power word"), introducing himself as Elminster and stating that "despoilers of tombs" will leave him and his friends alone—right now. (Lords of Darkness)
      • Ahem, the Cadaver Collector, which is Exactly What It Says on the Tin. While this is actually a mindless golem used by a necromancer to collect corpses, usually from battlefields, that fact doesn't make it any less unsettling. And it often has difficulty telling living creatures from dead ones...
    • Tomb robbing is the Hat of the Yitek race in the Talislanta game.
    • In Exalted, grave robbing is discouraged not only for cultural reasons, but also because desecrating a tomb/corpse will unleash a raging Hungry Ghost (one of the person's souls that remains with the body to protect it) on the local area. Powerful people often recieve highly secure tombs as much to reduce the chance of anybody angering the resident ghost as to protect their valuables and dignity (although lavish tombs also help keep the ghost placated).


    • Some of the character bios (in game and in the instruction manual) outright state that Lara Croft is often accused of this.
      • The series is named Tomb Raider. You don't need the manual to to figure it out.
    • Guybrush does this in Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge in order to make a voodoo doll of Largo. The scene is complete with thunder and lightning accompanied by swelling musical dread, ending with Guybrush hoisting the stolen item over his head while his pants fall to his ankles.
    • Fallout 2 allows players with a shovel to dig up graves. Beyond an odd few sidequest important ones, they give you the "gravedigger" reputation (bad).
      • It's also very profitable. And of course, the reaction when you dig up a ghoul who has accidentally buried. This leads to funny comments and one confused PC.
      • Fallout: New Vegas also allows players to do this if they have a shovel in their inventory. No significant consequences are attached but what loot there is to be found is usually pretty mild (a few meds, some ammo, or maybe a damaged weapon)
    • In Arcanum You are required to dig up 2 graves (1 if you know where you are going) to beat the game. You can also dig up various other graves.
    • One of the Imperial City sidequests in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion sees you investigating a trader who sells stuff at ridiculously low prices. It turns out, his "goods" were actually supplied by the local grave digger gang.
    • Quite a few Zelda games have Link go into tombs or graves to find items. One of the better known times is in The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time, when he goes into the former keeper of the Graveyard's tomb and races the ghost to get the hookshot (on the other hand, the ghost willingly hands it over, so does that count?) A more obvious example in The Legend of Zelda Majoras Mask would be on the Third Day, when the keeper of that graveyard breaks into the Royal Family tomb and not only openly admits to Link that he is looking for treasure hidden there, he asks Link to help him.
    • Tingle too has to steal from the dead in Freshly-Picked: Tingle's Rosy Rupeeland.
    • One early quest in Kingdom of Loathing requires you to rob the grave of a deceased legendary wizard so you can get the key to his tower. Humorously, before you can rob his grave, you have to win a grave robbing shovel from another enemy in the area called a grave rober (yes, it's supposed to be spelled like that, the area in question is the Misspelled Cemetary). And later on, you can fight grave rober zmobies, who keep trying to rob their OWN graves, and get pissed and attack you out of frustration because they keep failing to find anything to rob.
    • You need to dig up several graves in King's Quest IV, although you return the items to ghosts to which they belong so it's not exactly stealing.
    • Nethack allows you to rob graves. This has a chance of allowing you to obtain gold and items. This being Nethack, you're just as likely to find an irate mummy or zombie. Grave robbing also has the potential to carry an alignment penalty.
    • One evil fundraising option in the Empires Gaiden Games to the Dynasty Warriors is opening a tomb and taking whatever's inside.
    • In Red Dead Redemption, one of the people John Marston is forced to interact with is Seth Briars, a thoroughly insane, extremely Squicky Grave Robber who prefers the company of corpses to real people. This reaches its natural conclusion in the Halloween Episode Undead Nightmare, where Seth's reaction to the Zombie Apocalypse is to play poker and hold parties with the walking dead, and to express disgust with Marston for wanting to end the curse that brought them back to life.
    • Elika accuses the Prince of being this in the 2008 Prince of Persia. He doesn't deny it.
    • Averted in Legend of the Crystal Skull, in which the clues Nancy collects and the eponymous crystal skull are adjacent to various tombs and crypts, but never actually inside the coffins themselves. The one clue she has to dig for isn't in a grave, although it does lie within the cemetery grounds.
    • Egyptian Burial Tombs in Civilization V increase the amount of money plundered if the city is captured, presumably because of grave robbing.
    • Demon's Souls features Graverobber Blige, who takes what he can from the dead to sell to passing Demon slayers. In fact, almost every merchant but the Once Royal Mistress gets their ways by taking advantage of the demon invasion this way.
    • Planescape: Torment has an entire guild of people known as the Collectors whose job is to find dead bodies and turn them in to the Dustmen, a local sect that uses the corpses as zombie laborers. Of course, the Collectors almost always strip the bodies of everything valuable first. One of your party members, Annah, is one...and met you by finding your Player Character dead and collecting his body. (The game starts with you waking up at the morgue, and you meet up with her again later.)
    • Minecraft lets you rob treasure from pyramids in the desert. Each pyramid can contain things like gold, iron, diamonds, bones, and rotten flesh, but they're also guarded by TNT traps that trigger if you step on the pressure plate. Doing so will destroy all the treasure and kill you.
    • In Mortal Kombat 11, the Krypt is sort of a minigame where the protagonist is an unnamed thief searching the ruins of Shang Tsung's island in order to find treasure. The "treasure", of course, is unlockables the player can use in Arcade Ladder Mode.


    Western Animation

    • Bender of Futurama apparently has a grave robbery kit, and by the end of the episode "The Luck of the Fryrish" is "one skull away from a Mouseketeer reunion."
      • In the same episode he is seen emerging from an open grave saying that "no one can say that I don't own John Larroquette's spine".
    • According to Disney's Atlantis the Lost Empire, grave robbers are also known for their tendency of double-parking.
    • Harley Quinn; one of the many items Catwoman has stolen that is displayed in her house is an urn with Pablo Picasso's cremated remains. Sort of a reflection to her enormous ego in this version, she isn't satisfied with simply stealing his artwork, she has to steal the remains of the artist himself.

    Real Life

    • In Scotland back in the day, selling corpses to medical schools could be quite lucrative as mentioned in the article. Thus, many were obtained through not-so-legal methods.
      • Not just Scotland, the practice was common in many countries. "Doctor riots", mobs beating up medical professionals after a grave had been found desecrated, occurred in several US cities in the nineteenth century. Scotland is most famous because of those jolly chaps Burke and Hare who realised that waiting for bodies to be buried, then digging them up took longer than making fresh bodies out of unsuspecting boarders.
      • Still true today, as a number of U.S. cases have been in the news lately.[when?] Not just selling to medical schools, but also body parts such as bone, skin, and other organs to be transplanted into patients.
      • Note that at the height of the British graverobbing trade, stealing the corpse itself wasn't actually against the law: officially, a dead body had no monetary value, so taking one wasn't a criminal offense. Stealing anything buried with the corpse was illegal, so graverobbers often stripped a body naked and threw everything it wore back into the coffin. This legal loophole existed because the government knew that medical schools needed bodies to study, so dragged their feet about closing it.
    • Egyptian pyramids were often targeted by thieves for the incredible amount of wealth stored in there. Tutankhamen's tomb is famous for being one of the rare exceptions.
    • Leonardo Da Vinci often resorted to this to advance his research, as did Michelangelo for his art.
    • In the aftermath of the American Civil War, there was an unsuccessful plot to steal Lincoln's corpse and hold it for ransom.
    • An Ohio congressman, John Scott Harrison, was the victim of grave robbers in 1878.
    • The same thing happened to Alexander Stewart, a prominent New York businessman, although this time it was for ransom, not medical research.
    • Also to Charlie Chaplin, whose body was stolen two months after his death. The ransom was not paid and the body was recovered eleven weeks later.
      • In late 2009, unknown grave robbers stole the corpse of former Cypriot president Tassos Papadopoulos for unclear reasons. It was found a few months later in another cemetery, but the case remains unsolved.
    • In South America, "dentista da meia-noite" (midnight dentistry) is a common practice in which the grave robber breaks into mausoleums and steals gold teeth from the corpses.
    • Ed Gein, the infamous source of inspiration for Norman Bates, Jame Gumb, and Leatherface, exhumed bodies from graveyards and created trophies out of their bones and skin.
    • The United States systematically plundered and destroyed many Native American sacred sites. This practice continued well into the 20th century until it was banned by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990.
    • Thanks to the 2008 economic recession (combined with a strong lack of morals), some morticians developed a new form of grave robbing: Cremating blocks of wood or burying 150 pounds of concrete or garbage, leaving the real bodies to rot in a storage shed, and charging the surviving family members for services rendered.
      • Not sure how this gains anything, since the same amount of work (or more) is going into the fake burials. Then there's the smell and health hazards of the real bodies lying around.
      • The fires used to incinerate wood (or garbage) aren't nearly as hot as crematorium fires (a few hundred degrees versus a few thousand—thus much, much cheaper to run), so homeboy just lit some trash on fire, gave the ashes to the bereaved, and threw the bodies in a mass-grave in a nearby swamp. But yes, the smell was how the dumb-ass got caught.
    • Averted, or curiously procrastinated, by the archaeologists in charge of the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China. The famous Terracotta Army surrounding the tomb-mound was discovered in 1974, thus indicating the long-lost site of the mausoleum itself, which contains magnificent treasures if ancient historians are to be believed—and which still has not been excavated. Ostensibly the archaeologists are simply being cautious about damaging its contents—but this troper suspects that even after 22 centuries, including most recently more than 50 years of purportedly rationalistic, forward-looking, science-minded Communist rule, the Chinese retain some superstitious awe of the First Emperor.
      • The fact that the soil around the mausoleum being polluted by mercury, and the legend that they made a sea of mercury inside the tomb probably also helps to preserve the grave from gravediggers.
        • Not to mention the crossbow traps that were allegedly set up inside the tomb.
    • An Animal Wrongs Group did this to the corpse of the mother-in-law of a farmer they'd targeted in England. For many sympathizers, this was a Moral Event Horizon they did not want to cross...
    • One of the first investigations ever carried out by the U.S. Secret Service was launched against a ring of counterfeiters, who were plotting to steal Abraham Lincoln's corpse and hold it hostage for the release of their imprisoned engraver. This is, in fact, how a governmental department originally established to protect the nation's currency became responsible for guarding Presidents, living or dead.
    • Necrophiles...well, they are not always murderers so this trope will be used to fulfil their urges and its better than killing the living but still....
    • A man in Russia was found to have stolen 26 bodies of teenage girls and young women from their graves, dressed them up like dolls and in one case a teddy bear, and kept them at his home. No one seems to be quite sure why.
    • In late XIX century it was enough of a problem that several types of coffin Booby Traps were designed and sold.