Grave Robbing

In some areas, graverobbing is an honorable family business.

Elika: You rob the dead!
The Prince: It's a lot easier than robbing the living.

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.

In some cases, The Undead, corpses Back from the Dead are the properties themselves, Necromancers are prone to be repeated offender of this.

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.

Do not confuse with Robbing the Dead, which is the taking of personal belongings from a corpse.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Yu-Gi-Oh!: Dark Bakura's past self in Ancient Egypt. 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 "Thief King", and generally believed that it was within his right to steal whatever 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.
  • In Hollow Fields, the story's namesake school has an entire class dedicated to the subject.

    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 short Martian Manhunter story, J'onn is given the case of a presumed mass murderer in his role as police detective John Jones. A man has been found with his apartment full of dead bodies! J'onn pretty quickly figures out he's a grave robber, not a murderer. Among other things, all the corpses were obviously prepared for burial (wearing formal clothing and makeup).
  • In the EC Comics story "Death Suited Him!" (Tales from the Crypt #21), a man robs the grave of the man whose death he made look like an accident so he could marry his widow in the same tuxedo, and is poisoned to death by the embalming fluid.
  • The clone of the Red Skull that debuts in Uncanny Avengers demonstrates that he is every bit as vile as his source material when he steals Professor Xavier's body and rips out his brain so he can steal Xavier's Psychic Powers.
  • During The Death of Superman, Project Cadmus steals Superman's body after his funeral with the intent on cloning him. A little bit later on, the Eradicator does the same thing when he tries to claim Superman's body and can only create a facsimile.
  • In the 70's, DC had a short lived comic called Plop!, in which a crew of ghoulish looking folks present stories, each with a Karmic Twist Ending. In one, a kindly old man is actually a secret grave robber who visits funerals only to inventory the jewelry of the deceased. But when the doctor tells him his time is coming, he's frantic to avoid the same treatment at the hands of his apprentice. So he stipulates that he be buried only in everyday clothes. Alas, he forgot that a dentist who believed the man's public image had given him a free overhaul. And in the last scene, the apprentice is happily bashing out the gold teeth from the old man's corpse.

    Films — Live-Action 

  • In The Black Thief and the Knight of the Glen, one of the thief's story is about his robbing a grave.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • H.P. Lovecraft:
    • The antiheroes of "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 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 when an elven tomb guards' routine patrol detects what they think is yet another desecration by a bunch of human "adventurers". Things don't go well 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.
  • Doctor Evazam was doing this for his zombie experiments in Galaxy of Fear: City of the Dead. He's soon killed and buried. Later Tash wishes to exhume him, and her uncle and his droid agree, but local customs don't let that happen legally. So they'll just have to grave rob surreptitiously.
  • In Andre Norton's Forerunner Foray, Yasa brings along Ziantha because of her readings that they could find a rich tomb.
  • One of the tasks Mrs.White asks the four protagonists to do in The Candy Shop War. Granted the guy did leave a note granting permission to break into his tomb (he hid a valuable artifact there and gives instructions how to get in), but the kids are uneasy about it at the very least.
  • In The Doctrine of Labyrinths, resurrectionists have their own Weird Trade Union in the city of Melusine.

    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. Technically, they aren't robbing graves, just desecrating them. In-Universe however, they are accused and charged with grave robbing when the law caught up with them.
  • House and his team did this once. Obviously a medical benefit, probably for the patient at the time. After all, 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.
  • 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.
    • 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.
  • On Babylon 5, a race called the Markab dies off and others start using the local jumpgate to strip their home planet bare, until Sheridan blows it up.
  • On Deadwood it came up during one of the town meetings that Doc Cochran had been arrested for grave robbing, presumably For Science!.



    Tabletop Games 
  • Call of Cthulhu. 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 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)
  • 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).
  • Talisman: The aptly named Grave Robber character has a special ability that allows him to encounter the top card on the discard pile instead of drawing a card for their space as normal. This presumably represents the character digging up graves for their treasure, though interestingly enough the power lets them encounter any type of card, including events, places, and previously killed enemies. The character can rob graves in a more traditional sense by visiting the graveyard space, which allows them to take one item of their choice from the top 8 cards in the adventure deck.

    Video Games 
  • 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 the reaction when you dig up a ghoul who was 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.
  • In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, you can often trespass Ancient Nord tombs and loot the dead as you see fit. If you are a Necromancer yourself and learnt both Dead Thrall and The Ritual Stone, you can snatch both the corpses and golds into your own.
  • 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 Prince of Persia (2008). He doesn't deny it.
  • FromSoftware
  • Planescape: Torment has a 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 runs the Mortuary and prepares and inters the bodies of Sigil's dead. 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.)
    • You can later discover that a particularly rich Collector has become rich by finding ways into the Dustmen's own crypts, essentially robbing them of their own charges and re-selling them back. The Dustmen will not be happy to learn this.
  • 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.
    • Jungle temples have arrow traps that are triggered the moment you walk through the linked tripwires or destroying the wire itself. The only safe way to disarm the trap is to use shears to cut the wire. Luckily, you can just stand on one side of the hall to avoid the arrows and just loot the dispensers of their arrows. Jungle temples also have chests that contain similar treasure from the pyramids.
  • Uncharted, as part of the territory. Lampshaded in Drake's Fortune:
    Elena: Whoa, reading 16th-century Spanish. Not just a grave robber after all, huh?
  • Dungeons & Dragons Online, as you might imagine, has you visiting quite a few tombs — and given the best way to raise money for maintenance and magic items is to smash apart sarcophagi, one can safely guess that you get to do a lot of this. One of the earliest such quests has you thwarting a graverobbing attempt by Sahuagin and their Devourer cultist allies, who want to raise the dead of the family entombed there as undead to use against the village of Korthos.
  • As revealed in the Team Fortress 2 supplementary comic Loose Cannon, Engineer's grandfather built Blutarch and Redmond Mann machines that would extend their lifespans indefinitely. When Blutarch eventually demands that Engineer fix his when it starts to break down. Engie points out that without his grandfather's blueprints it'd be impossible, and said blueprints were buried with him- at which point Blutarch presents a large stack of old papers before him.
    Blutarch: Yes, yes, I dug up your grandfather and looted his corpse.
  • In Star Trek Online, the second expansion Delta Rising revealed that the Kobali, who populate their race by reviving the dead via a special virus who transform them into Kobali, have gone into this, taken fallen Vaadwaur and changing them into Kobali. This angers Harry Kim, as he was never told this. This gets even worse when he finds out that they have the real Harry Kim and are turning him into a Kobali, too. This last incident makes Harry decide to force the Kobali into changing their rules over someone being revived. The Kobali usually don't rob actual graves, but that's because there appears to be limits to how damaged a corpse can be and still be possible to turn into a living Kobali — the main source of Vaadwaur is actually a giant cryostasis facility meant to preserve thousands of Vaadwaur for their eventual return. The Kobali just keep an eye on it and pull out corpses for transformation whenever a cryopod fails.

    Web Comics 

    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".
    • He also says that graverobbing isn't a crime in the 31st century...but knowing Bender that's probably a lie.
  • In Disney's Atlantis The Lost Empire, when Vinny lists off the things the group isn't proud of, they include grave-robbing, plundering tombs -and double parking
  • On Adventure Time, Finn needs to find princess hair to save his best friend from an evil, balding witch. He winds up in a cemetery and finds a grave belonging to "Princess Beautiful," whom he digs up. It turns out she died of baldness. Also, rather than her spirit being vengeful, her skeleton simply thanks him for freeing her and wanders away.
    "Hey, that's perfect! And...sort of macabre...oh well."

    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. Many graves had mortsafes - a sort of metal cage - installed over them to deter grave-robbers.
    • 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. Not just selling to medical schools, but also body parts such as bone, skin, and other organs to be transplanted into patients.
    • 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 and mummies:
    • The 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, since by then the Egyptian kings had switched to the more hidden and easily guarded caves in the Valley of Kings, the smallest and most easily overlooked (and even so, that particular tomb was robbed twice). None of the pyramids has anything worth stealing left in it.
    • Recent studies with modern technology indicate that many pyramids still have hidden chambers that are nigh impossible to get to without drilling through a good part of the structure.
    • Speaking of body desecration, currently there is a number of mummified corpses on display in the central museum of Cairo (and maybe other ones too) for all those tourist drones to gawk on and serve as an attraction (along with the tombs themselves).
    • And then there were Egyptian mummies collected and used as fuel for steam engines, as they apparently burned really well.
    • Ground up Egyptian mummy was a key ingredient in folk remedies for various ailments in medieval Europe and Middle East.
  • Leonardo Da Vinci often resorted to this to advance his research, as did Michelangelo for his art.
  • 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.
  • 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. His own grave was a frequent target as well.
  • 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 approximately-2010 economic recession (combined with a strong lack of morals,) some morticians have 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. 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).
    • The 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. The smell was how the dumb-ass got caught.
    • A particularly chilling example occurred in 2002, at the Tri-State Crematory; they used fine concrete.
  • 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 perhaps 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.
    • The Terracota Army actually used to have real weapons. Some were recovered from the soil, but most were stolen in the meantime.
  • 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...
  • In the aftermath of the American Civil War, there was an unsuccessful plot to steal Lincoln's corpse and hold it for ransom. One of the first investigations ever carried out by the U.S. Secret Service was launched against the 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, one of the ways 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 fulfill their urges and its better than killing the living but still....
  • Necromancers... well, while real life necromancers cannot resurrect dead bodies, they do occasionally use the corpses as medium hoping to communicate with the spirits. Ghost Marriage, marrige arranged for the dead also applys in this case.
  • 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.