Polish exhumation mania

Sometimes it takes a while to notice national characteristics or manias. I learned early on that mushroom picking and harvesting change from unwary shoppers were national pursuits on a par with English cricket or American baseball, but only recently have I stumbled on the Polish national obsession with exhumation. There seems to be something about a buried body that nags at the Polish consciousness, especially if the body belonged to somebody famous. A Pole who does anything of note in his or her life has a slim chance of resting peacefully in the grave. Some manage to get in a good few centuries coffin time before they are unearthed, others barely have time to begin decomposing before the shovels start clanking away, and a few have been dug up and reburied so many times they may as well have had revolving doors installed on their tombs. Either lying around under the earth just offends the Polish work ethic, or there is something else going on. I wouldn’t be the first internationally-renowned authority on Poland to note the Polish tendency to poke at sleeping dogs, assuming I was an internationally-renowned authority on Poland.

gravesThe grave – not necessarily the permanent residence of the Pole.

By randomly clicking through the Wikipedia entries for famous Poles I’ve come up with a startlingly long list of them who have been dug up in one form or another. Since I consider this article the founding document in the soon-to-be burgeoning study of Poland-based exhumania I’ve organized it under three separate morbid reasons

* * *

Reason 1: Maybe he was a saint?

This question usually comes into play shortly after a particularly religious or holy person has snuffed it and is part of a wider Catholic and Orthodox obsession with the incorruptibility of the sacred. In both of these faiths the failure of a body to decompose in the normal manner is seen as evidence of sainthood. Consequently, if you were a noted holy person during your life the temptation to dig you up and see of you’ve decomposed yet is eventually going to be overwhelming.

Incorruptible saints have a long history in Central and Eastern Europe. One of the reasons the communists preserved Lenin and put him on public display was to capture some of the Russian people’s centuries-old adoration of incorruptible bodies for their secular saint. The practice of exhuming popular bishops, priests, and cardinals was rife in Poland throughout much of its history. It is still one of the favorite “miracles” among the faithful today. The story of Padre Pio’s miraculous state of incorruptibility when he was exhumed in 2008 was all over Poland. The fact that the Catholic Church had quite deliberately and clearly stated that he had been artificially preserved and that they had put a latex mask on his face for public viewing didn’t stop thousands jumping up and down and claiming incorruptibility.

The story of Piotr Skarga is instructive on this point. Skarga was a renowned and highly respected Polish Jesuit during the period of the Counter-Reformation. Once he had died and people could no longer contain their excitement over whether he had decomposed or not he was duly dug up and inspected to see how saintly he was. Unfortunately for Skarga the examination revealed that he was indeed in a miraculously good state of preservation, but that he had accidentally been buried alive and therefore wasn’t eligible for sainthood. Seems a little unfair. There was probably some boring political reason that I can’t be bothered to research.

john_paul_2Hmm, I see exhumation in my future

Think we’ve seen the last of Jan Pawel II? I’d lay good money that his “incorruptible” visage will be staring out at us from the front page of gazeta.pl before too long.

* * *

Reason 2: Dead, but in the wrong place.

The fact that a lot of notable Poles have found it necessary to move to other countries in order to become notable rather than, say, rotting in a Russian prison has meant that a lot of them have died away from the motherland. Although Poles are justifiably proud of their great and good they get a little nervous when said great and good aren’t conveniently lying around in Polish soil so that they can point them out to tourists. Dying as a famous Pole in a foreign country, especially if you’re a poet, makes you a prime candidate for the exhumation game.

Of the three giants of Polish literature (Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, and Zygmunt Krasiński) two thirds (that’s two of them) were exhumed and reburied in Poland. Mickiewicz has the dubious honor of having been exhumed and reburied twice. He died in 1855 in Istanbul and was buried in handy crypt he happened to have in his basement. Seriously. Shortly thereafter he was exhumed and reburied in Montmorency near Paris and in 1900 he was exhumed again and moved to Wawel Cathedral in Krakow. So far he has managed to remain buried for over a hundred years, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a triple just yet.

adam_mickiewiczMickiewicz, exhumed twice… so far

Other famous grave dodgers include Henryk Sienkiewicz, who had the rare privilege of being cremated somewhere between his first burial in Switzerland and his second in Warsaw, Józef Bem, who went six feet under in Aleppo and ended up doing it all over again in Tarnów 79 years later, and Stanisław Witkiewicz (known as Witkacy), who is my favorite. Witkacy was a famously loony playwright, novelist, painter, and photographer who delighted in confounding expectations. He famously killed himself somewhere in eastern Poland a few days after the German invasion in 1939 and was buried there. Years later he was exhumed and moved to his beloved Zakopane, except he wasn’t. Somehow the communist authorities managed to dig up the wrong body and, realizing their mistake, refused to allow anyone to look in the coffin before the remains were reburied. In 1994 the remains were exhumed (again) and found to be those of a Ukranian woman. Some theories hold that Witkacy didn’t in fact commit suicide and lived out the rest of his life in Łódź. Whether in Łódź or absurdist heaven Witkacy was surely laughing his rear end off.

* * *

Reason 3: Hey!

Moving into the period of the reborn Poland, post 1989, a new exhumation theme emerges – the theme of vindication, proof and blatant curiosity. The paradigm of this new excuse to dig up the dead has to be the case of Władysław Sikorski. Sikorski died in a plane crash off Gibraltar that may or may not have been orchestrated by British Intelligence, Russian spies, or malignant Venusians. Like Mickiewicz he achieved the rare double exhumation. He was first buried in Newark-on-Trent, England shortly after his death, and reburied in Wawel Cathedral in Krakow in 1993. He was exhumed again in 2008 as part of an investigation to find out if he had been bumped off or not. The unpopular results suggested that he had died from crashing into the Mediterranean in an airplane. Who knows how long it will be until somebody comes up with a new reason to unearth the general and subject him to further tests.

sikorskiSikorski – a sure candidate for the triple exhumation?

Other examples include the bizarre search for the body of Copernicus, which went on for years and finally ended with the announcement that his remains had been found in 2008. They knew he was dead, and they knew he was buried under Frombork Cathedral so exactly why they felt the need to dig up his body I am unable to fathom. Presumably it was to see if he was wearing an “I love Poland” tee-shirt thereby ending centuries of controversy over whether he was actually Polish or German.

In 2008 the Polish government was petitioned for permission to “exhume” the heart of Frédéric Chopin, which was “buried” inside a pillar of Warsaw’s Kościół świętokrzyski (Holy Cross Church) in order to find out if the composer had died of tuberculosis or cystic fibrosis, because that’s really important to know. Chopin’s heart had previously been exhumed and hidden during the war to save it from German heart thieves. The rest of Chopin’s body has been safely entombed in Paris for 160 years, but who knows.

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17 thoughts on “Polish exhumation mania

  1. guest says:

    Joseph Conrad and Jerzy Kukuczka are next on the list. Sooner or later…

  2. Ania says:

    There are the dead officers from Katyń that would like to find their eternal resting place in the motherland. Rosjanie, oddajcie trupy.

    You know, Island, if we don’t get to rest in the motherland soil, we turn into vampires. Wouldn’t it bother you not to know where will you rest your head? People used to take sacks of soil when going abroad, to be poured on their coffins.

    And don’t you live in Kraków? Under the churches there are crypts. You can go in and see the corpses of medieval monks. And there are necropoleis all around towns and cities, where we go to light the eternal lights and scrub the granite statues. Surely it’s interesting where is your family buried, to properly attend to their statues.

    People save for their burials. My Grandfather , who passed away in March, took keen interest in organizing his own, mainly by inquiring where his three sons intend to bury him exactly? All, the grave, the tomb, the ceremony, was paid for two years ago. Grandfather was almost pleased.

    So if we take so much interest in the corpses of our families, then we take even more in the corpses of heroes.

    And, for especially glorious individuals, there are barrows, kopce. Or burial mounds if you prefer. Kurhany. No exhumation possible. You problem solved.

    Don’t Anglo-Saxons turn into wampiry, strzygi, utopce, wilkołaki? If nobody attended to the funeral? Or do you turn into faeries?

  3. guest says:


    “Funeral ceremonies in Sarmatian Poland were highly unusual, and unknown in other parts of Europe. They were carefully planned shows, full of ceremony and splendour. Elaborate preparations were made in the period between a nobleman’s death and his funeral, which employed a large number of craftsmen, architects, decorators, servants and cooks. Sometimes many months passed before all the preparations were completed. Before the burial, the coffin with the corpse was laid in a church amid the elaborate architecture of the castrum doloris (“castle of mourning”). Heraldic shields, which were placed on the sides of the coffin, and a tin sheet with an epitaph served a supplementary role and provided information about the deceased person. Religious celebrations were usually preceded by a procession which ended in the church. It was headed by a horseman who acted the role of the deceased nobleman and was covered in his armour. A horseman would enter the church and fall off his horse with a tremendous bang and clank, showing in this way the triumph of death over the earthly might and knightly valour. Some funeral ceremonies lasted for as long as four days, ending with a wake which had little to do with the seriousness of the situation, and could easily turn into sheer revelry. Occasionally an army of clergy took part in the burial (in the 18th century 10 bishops, 60 canons and 1705 priests took part in the funeral of a Polish nobleman).”

  4. Pioro-Boncza says:

    i never understood the need for a fancy funeral. if i’m dead i don’t really care what my corpse is laying in. pine box will be just fine for me. i would rather have my money spent by my surviving descendants rather than lining the pockets of some funeral worker selling an overpriced coffin. does a dead body really need a pillow and silk lining? then again, the melodramatic side of me would love to have one of those viking funerals where you stick my corpse on a wooden ship and push it out to sea ablaze….cool stuff ^__^

  5. Ania says:

    And one can even have a coffin portrait:

    I suppose that upon death we enter the real life, don’t we? It’s a tradition in which Christian beliefs mix with ancient ones. Our pagan heaven was here, on earth. Venerable deceased would watch their descendants, sit on chairs etc. Now it’s a bit better, because they get dispatched to purgatory (most likely).

    Anyway, one can never err on the side of caution. It’s safer for the left behind to order a gregorian mass.
    It’s the modern equivalent of piercing the heart with an aspen spike. Not sure why it had to be aspen wood.

  6. Sylwia says:


    What cemetry is on that picture?

    Witkacy didn’t die several days after the German invasion, only one day after the Russian one. Huge difference!

    I think that King Stanisław August Poniatowski was exhumated even more often, but you’d need to add a new category: Poles deemed unworthy of being burried in the Polish soil.

    Ania, their vampires aren’t family members only sexual predators. Something about sex being only for vampires in the 19th century England. ;)

  7. MaterialGirl says:

    Ex-Humane me, please, please! I want to be better!

  8. Island1 says:

    Slow to reply this week. My computer blew up and there was a statutory three day period of mourning. Even worse, I’m now having to use a Windows machine until mine is fixed. It’s not pleasant.

    guest: I was amazed that Conrad hasn’t been dug up yet. But then I guess his novels are not as famous in Poland as they are in the UK.

    Ania: One of the big differences is that cremation isn’t popular here. In England it is and it’s hard to become a vampire or get exhumed if you’re a handfull of ashes scattered in the bar of the Dog and Duck.

    Sacks of soil. Hmm, I wonder if that’s where Bram Stoker got the inspiration for Dracula’s coffin full of soil – strange eastern europeans wandaring around with bits of their homeland in their suitcases.

    But nobody is actually buried under kopce, are they?

    Pioro: I too have a secret ambition to go out on a burning ship. Maybe we could start a society.

    Sylwia: No idea which cemetery it is, just a random google image.

    Poniatowski is an interesting one, but then there were so many!

    MG: I was proud of ‘exhumania,’ even if it probably already does mean something.

  9. Ania says:

    Island: yes, kurhan is a type of a grave. There is a burial chamber inside, with a body or ashes.
    For example: http://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wielkopolskie_piramidy

  10. gagutek says:

    I enjoyed reading your article/post. You should start sending your stories for publishing (if anybody out there would like to read about Poland and what Polish are up to!)…

    Just to make a note regarding Skarga not being “eligible” for sainthood. I can only guess, but this is pretty sure guess that no political reasons were behind it. Nobody found buried alive can be regarded by Church as a saint. As you will never be 100% sure if this person hadn’t turned away from God or had denied his/her faith just in the last moments of being alive.

    keep writing!

  11. Island1 says:

    gagutek: Thanks for the kind words.

    That’s a disturbing argument and sounds just twisted enough to be true, good point. If I was a priest and woke up buried alive I guess questioning my faith would be pretty high on my agenda.

  12. Ania says:

    oh, just noticed. burning ship? be you a pirate?

  13. Sylwia says:

    Oh, I was asking about the kind of cemetery. I mean there are no crosses there, so it doesn’t seem like there are many Poles there to exhume. ;)

    Poniatowski appears to have been moved only twice after all. But they managed to lost his body in the meantime, and even then they didn’t know what to do with him. Who knows, maybe one day Poles will forgive him enough to move him once again, to Wawel this time.

    Ania, I think that vampires are some of those purgatory guys too, only that they’re doomed to purgatory for life, err, for eternity. While those who pay us visits on various occasions, i.e. those for whom we leave the extra plate on Christmas, have it easier to get either to hell or heaven, eventually. Well, at least we’re never alone, and we may always count on some extra holiday attractions. :D

  14. steven says:

    I aspire to be dug back up several times after I lay down for the long dirt nap. What an honour it must be for people to take such interest in you long after the worms and beetles have been decomposing you.

  15. GB says:

    An update, showing more sophisticated level of “exhumation mania”: http://wiadomosci.onet.pl/1994832,12,item.html

    For those not speaking Polish: as the remains of JP2 were not buried in Poland and the chances of his “comeback” are poor, it was proposed that at least he (or more precisely some selected parts of what is left of him) should be honored by the “last pilgrimage” to his country. To support this idea, they went as far as re-reading and twisting his last will.

    Gagutek, thanks for the explanation (of why Skarga was not eligible for sainthood). Before that I was naively thinking that “buried alive” status should be rather considered an advantage as it is somewhat similar to martyrdom.

  16. Alex says:

    hey, brilliant article, I was laughing my butt off! As a Pole in Ireland, every now and again I have to explain some of our weird customs & habbits to my boyfriend, and your words are very helpful ;) Thanks & keep on writing!

  17. […] else – Oxford mostly. You’re not being dug up but you are being relocated, which should keep Jamie happy as ‘guest’ commented […]

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