Today’s post topic came to me in a dream. The other night I dreamt that I was doing a public education event somewhere, and that I was teaching kids about the grave of a man who lost his leg. Rather than giving the limb over to the doctors, he felt that this piece of himself deserved a proper burial, gravestone and all! I showed the kids a photo of the gravestone that had a strange wood umbrella behind it…and because this was a dream, I also had a cream highlighter stick that I would twist up and show the carved wood umbrella on the stick. Maybe it was branding? I’m not sure, it was a weird dream, but I woke up determined to tell you all about one of my favourite burial quirks: Limb Burials.
The idea of wanting to preserve or honour one’s amputated body parts, whether they were removed for one’s health or as the result of an act of violence, is not a new one. You may have heard of the woman a few years ago who had the bones from her own foot preserved and re-articulated after amputation? (There are human bones in that link, warning) That’s an extreme example, but very cool! The more common option was to have an actual burial, gravestone and all.
The photo above is the first possible limb burial I’ve ever come across, at the Malew Churchyard on the Isle of Man. I was there in 2011 for my undergrad archaeology field school, with the University of Liverpool and the Centre for Manx Studies. The gravestone does not have an inscription on it that I could see, but the iconography is not your standard fare: It appears to be a femur with an odd bottom to it, with stylised wings extending from the top. The only thing that I can think is that this is the grave to an amputated limb, likely a leg if it is actually a femur. I only wish I knew the age of the stone, or anything else about it, so if you have any additional information, please drop a comment below!
This type of grave can be found all around the world, and the iconography varies greatly! While visiting Edinburgh in 2019 (ps how was that already 2 years ago), we toured around the Old Calton Burial Ground in the city centre, which opened in 1718. The site is famous for being the site of the only American Civil War monument outside the USA, but I was much more interested in finding the grave of Marion Laurie Sutherland, who we read about on the site’s interpretive sign. She lost her leg when she was 37, and it was buried at the site. While the interp sign had a drawing of the leg’s gravestone, which I didn’t take a photo of eventually, we couldn’t find it after at least 45 minutes of searching the gravestones. It’s likely that her leg was buried in the family’s plot, and 23 years later she was reunited with her leg and, I assume, the gravestone was replaced. We did find her grave, leg and all!
There are some theories about why people buried their amputated limbs. Apparently in some places, it was the law for amputated limbs to receive a proper burial, and some Christians believed that at the time of their resurrection they would want their bodies to be whole again. Some religious such as Islam and Judaism had rules for the proper burial of severed limbs!
There are a few ‘famous’ amputated limb graves, pictured below. On the left, we have the gravestone of Wait and William Tripp located in Newport, RI, the children of William and Desire, as well as “his wife’s arm amputated Feby 20th 1786”. The two cherubs represent the children, while the arm in the centre of the stone represents Desire’s…arm! Apparently, the gravestone even “includes a “practice” engraving of the arm on the upper surface of the stone under ground” (Belolan 2013). If you want to read more about Desire’s amputation and family, check out the article by Belolan, linked at the end of this post. Desire’s amputation cost the family £6, and by the 19th century, the gravestone was an oddity in Newport! I’d love to see it in person one day.
The most famous limb burial in North America is the that of Stonewall Jackson’s arm, dated May 8, 1863. Jackson was a Confederate general in the Civil War, and lost his arm during the war, which was buried at the Ellwood Manor, Virginia. Apparently, Mrs. Jackson was asked if she wanted to have the arm dug up and buried with her husband, who died not long after the amputation, but she did not wish to disturb its burial (Martinez 2012). However, the arm was supposedly dug up later on, and no one knows if it was reburied in the same place or not. The granite marker, erected in 1903, that indicates the burial place may or may not actually be marking the arm’s grave (Martinez 2012)!
These graves are only a few examples of the careful burial of amputated limbs by their former owners. Possibly a way of honouring a piece of their body that died before they did, these graves are wonderful examples of the broad range of iconography to show who or what is buried somewhere, and what variation that can take. I do hope to get my own photo of the Tripp grave in the near future, maybe during PhD fieldwork? If you have any stories about seeing a limb grave out in the wild, I’d love to see you photos!
As always, thanks for reading!
Allan, Laura. 2018. There Are Centuries-Old Grave Sites Just For Amputated Limbs That You Can Still Visit. Ranker. https://www.ranker.com/list/grave-sites-for-amputated-limbs/laura-allan
Belolan, Nicole. 2013. OBJECT LESSON: DESIRE TRIPP AND HER ARM’S GRAVESTONE. Commonplace: the Journal of Early American Life. Accessed on April 4, 2021. http://commonplace.online/article/object-lesson-desire-tripp-arms-gravestone/
Martinez, Ramona. 2012. The Curious Fate of Stonewall Jackson’s Arm. NPR. Accessed on April 4, 2021. https://www.npr.org/2012/06/28/155804965/the-curious-fate-of-stonewall-jacksons-arm