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Grave robbing laws

Updated February 21, 2019

Grave robbery is the offence of removing a body or artefacts from a grave. The penalties can be civil or criminal, and state laws vary significantly. Grave robbery often becomes a political issue when archaeologists dig up artefacts from ancient people. Native American groups in the United States have fought to have their grave sites respected, and the law on this particular variety of grave robbery is often unclear.

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Necrophilia, or the obsession with and sexual attraction to corpses, is perhaps the most disturbing reason people rob graves. Nine states in the United States do not have laws against necrophilia. This gained national media coverage in 2006 when three men attempted to have sex with a corpse they dug up in Wyoming. Altough police wanted to charge them with third-degree sexual assault, there were no laws at the time prohibiting necrophilia. In states that do have laws against necrophilia, the crime is often viewed as a kind of sexual assault, punishable by time in prison.

Corpse Theft

Corpse theft is the act of removing a corpse from its grave. People may steal corpses for a variety of reasons, including youthful pranks, interest in dead bodies, necrophilia and scientific experimentation. Most states have laws against corpse theft and treat it as a felony or misdemeanour. It is also a civil offence. The family members of the deceased may sue under a variety of statutes, most frequently intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Grave Robbery

Grave robbery is the crime of removing valuables from a person's grave. Most states treat grave robbery as its own offence, although some states incorporate grave robbery into other robbery statutes. Texas, for example, defines felony theft as the act of stealing more than £975 worth of goods from a person, corpse or grave. The offence is punishable by time in jail. Family members of the deceased may also institute a civil action to recoup the value of the stolen property or to punish the perpetrator for committing a tort.


Archaeologists frequently participate in digs to recover artefacts to learn about past societies. They have come under heavy fire for exhuming artefacts of certain peoples, particularly Native Americans in the United States. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a federal law passed in 1990, extends grave protection to Native Americans' ancestors. Agencies that receive federal funding, including educational institutions, must return cultural artefacts, graves and even bodies to the Native American tribes to whom they belong. Knowing violation of this law results in loss of federal funding, civil lawsuits and in rare cases, criminal charges.

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About the Author

Brenna Davis is a professional writer who covers parenting, pets, health and legal topics. Her articles have appeared in a variety of newspapers and magazines as well as on websites. She is a court-appointed special advocate and is certified in crisis counseling and child and infant nutrition. She holds degrees in developmental psychology and philosophy from Georgia State University.

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