Digging the dead: Anthropology student explores future career

Lifestyle Editor

Hannah Pilgrim spent a day with the dead this summer.

Pilgrim’s six-week field anthropology course took her on a field trip to the Miller Mausoleum in Holden, Missouri. She and ten other students spent a day at the mausoleum to practice mapping and surveying the land and cataloging artifacts. Pilgrim said the mausoleum’s owner Carl Cranfill invited the class on a tour inside the mausoleum, where a team was removing bodies from their crypts.

“And since bones is kind of my specialty, I kind of started talking to him about what process he was using to remove the bones – if he needed a specialized team or if was just using the local funeral home,” Pilgrim said.

Pilgrim said Cranfill noticed her interest in the subject and invited her to come back and observe another day as a team from a funeral home removed the bodies. Pilgrim said the team showed her how they removed the cover from the coffin and scraped the back to ensure they didn’t miss any small bones and pieces.

“And then they gave me gloves and tools and said ‘Now it’s your turn,’” Pilgrim said. “So they just kind of put me feet first – jumped in and said pull stuff out.”

Pilgrim said at one point she had to crawl inside a crypt to remove pieces that were stuck on the end.

“That was a little terrifying, being stuck in there, but it was definitely fun,” Pilgrim said.

She said it could be difficult at times because the coffins were too big and the bottoms would fall out.

“So we had to have at one point I think eight guys to help us pull them out because they had sandwiched it in there so hard and then the different materials they were comprised of  – so wood or steel  – the bottoms would come out,” Pilgrim said. “So we had to make sure we had tarps and buckets out so we didn’t lose anything and so at the same time trying to treat it with the most respect that we could because they were human remains.”

Pilgrim said the mausoleum is a two-story concrete building that holds between 100 to 150 crypts, with only half being occupied. She said Cranfill was removing bodies of his family members from the mausoleum to be cremated because he feared vandals would break into the crypts.

“There’s been a problem with vandalism,” Pilgrim said. “Because there were no locks or bars, people had gotten in there and thrown out the stain glass and ripped up the oil paintings and so he (Cranfill)  was worried about people breaking in there and running off with the bones.  So, he wanted to be able to keep it as a monument but at the same time protect his family in the inside.”

Pilgrim said she was a little nervous to help extract bodies from the coffins.

“I mean, growing up the way we did in Colorado on a farm – basically we had every animal imaginable – so I’d been around dead things, but I’ve never been around dead people before to that extent,” Pilgrim said. “I was like, this is what I’ve been talking about. What if I change my mind?”

She said some of the students were bothered by the smells, especially since there were no windows, but she thought it was awesome.

“Some of the stuff that we found in the crypt that were still there after so long…people had wooden dentures, eyeglasses, clothes, hat pins.. there was one that had a small (stuffed) dog that was still in perfect condition in there,” Pilgrim said. ”Seeing what was left behind after all this time was really cool also.”

Pilgrim said she thinks the funeral home expected her to be squeamish about it all, and when she wasn’t they were impressed.

“So what Carl actually did was he told me that both him and the funeral home were very impressed with how I was behaving; that I was very respectful, I wasn’t afraid to ask questions… I handled remains with as much respect as I could,” Pilgrim said. “Both him and the funeral home offered to write me a letter of recommendation for any and every school that I could want to apply for. So this opportunity definitely has the best repercussions.”

Pilgrim has a lot of aspirations for her future, and said she has considered working for the police or the FBI in a forensic anthropology lab. She said her experience this summer has made her realize how much more there is to learn.

“I had a blast. I can’t wait to do more research,” Pilgrim said. “I felt like I had more questions than answers by the time I was done. Like, because each set of remains was decomposed in a different way based on what material they were in and how much moisture had gotten to them. Like one set was buried in the twenties or thirties and when we opened the crypt all her clothes were still intact and she still had part of her hair. So I had way more questions by the end that I still want to figure out anything that I can.”

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