Dig it! Reasons not to let it be

Published March 4, 2004, in issue #0309 of the Hook


Q. "Rest in peace" doesn't always work out that way. What are reasons for unburying the dead? ­B. Stoker

 A. Disinterment or exhumation is done today for medicolegal (was it really Lee Harvey Oswald?) or scientific purposes (was AIDS the true cause of death?), or because a cemetery is being abandoned, or the relatives wish to move the body, says Kenneth V. Iserson, M.D., in Death To Dust.

History records some more striking cases, as when grieving U.S. President Abraham Lincoln twice needed "just one more look" at his child Willy's face. During the French Revolution, the dead were not uncommonly exhumed and then decapitated for political crimes.

Pope Formosus' (816-896) remains were twice disinterred for supposed crimes, once by Pope Stephen VII, who had the body dragged through the streets, tried and convicted, and fingers cut off (the "Cadaver Synod"), then again later by Pope Sergius III for another run through of the foregoing.

During a cholera epidemic of the Middle Ages, a dead "witch" was exhumed and reburied face down to stop the plague, then when this didn't work was re-exhumed and her grave clothes turned inside out. Later– plague still raging– her heart was removed, cut into four pieces and burned at the corners of the village.

The 19th-century poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti buried the only copies of some poems with his wife, then seven years later decided he wanted them, says Dr. Iserson. One fall night by the light of a bonfire, the lady's body was disinterred, her long flaming red hair covering the manuscript, strands of which were also taken and presented to the author.

Q. Driver A explodes off the line in a dragster to reach an incredible 392.54 mph in a sizzling time of 3.72 seconds, setting a record. Driver B rides a rocket sled from standstill to 72.5 mph in .04 seconds, less than an eyeblink. Who has the more exciting– or frightening– ride? ­-T. Payne

 A. These were the performances of Kitty O'Neil in 1977 and Eli Beeding Jr. in 1958, and the Beeding ride– at less than one-fifth the top speed– was likely the bigger shocker, say David Halliday et al. in Fundamentals of Physics. The human body is not a speedometer but an accelerometer it senses accelerations. Traveling 1000 mph in a jet can feel like nothing at all, but accelerating up to that speed can be felt plenty.

In O'Neil's case, she was subjected to a mild 4.8 g's of acceleration, taking much more time to build to her greater speed, whereas Beeding was hit by 80 g's, which "could have been lethal, had it continued much longer."

Q. When we motoring humans really move out beyond Earth, on which moons or planets would our automobiles run best? What special driving stunts based on extraterrestrial physics might be in store for us? ­E. Knieval

A. All vehicles would have to be electric because no moon or other planet has oxygen to support a traditional internal combustion engine, says space scientist James Gering of the Florida Institute of Technology. The outer planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune lack solid surfaces for tires to roll over, being essentially just large balls of gas.

The electric Lunar Rovers showed that driving on the Moon can be quite fun. The tires churned up "rooster tails" of moon dust, and there was enough gravity (1/6 Earth's) to keep the tires in contact with the surface, though it was a bouncy ride.

"Of course, when you weigh only 1/6 of what you're accustomed to, bounces won't feel so jarring," the authors say.

Probably the best planet would be Mars, says Terry Oswalt, also of the Florida Institute of Technology. At least it has some atmosphere and a relatively high gravity.

The best place to drive there might be down one of the dry washes inside canyons where water flowed over a billion years ago. Some of these descend many kilometers– you could use a "soap box derby" car for downhill. Under 40% of Earth's gravity, you could easily top the daredevil's stunt of jumping over long lines of parked cars or school buses.

However, cornering would be tough, because of low gravity and poor road friction. Special tires would help.

For the truly adventurous, says Oswalt, assuming your car is more like a pressurized wheeled spacecraft, driving on an asteroid like Eros might be interesting.

"With such a low gravity– less than 1 percent Earth's– and ground-hugging wheels to accommodate the low friction, you could drive fast enough to launch yourself into a ballistic orbit!"

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@compuserve.com.