Listening RoomThe Poet Speaks

The Resurrection Trade



William Burke, grave robber
Edinborough, 1792-1829
The resurrection trade
is not what it was
when Burke was hanged

for raising the dead ones
for docs
to dissect them

when gangs of robbers
roamed the graveyards
for cadavers

with Scots afraid
their Rest in Peace
would be delayed

’til surgeons cut
their parts apart
and learned enough.

The trade these days
is theft from beds
instead of graves.

We cheat the dead of
dying by machines
instead of spades.

With drips instead of
picks, apothecaries
mix elixirs

so blood still circulates
when we work wiles
upon the poor.

We resurrect them
early to make sure
they get the gift

they never got
the years they lived.

Poet’s Commentary:

“Of course the obtaining of cadavers for medical schools has not always been the most honest trade and at times in the past this practice of bringing dead bodies to medical schools–which used to be called ‘the resurrection trade’– was widely practiced. This poem is a reflection of that and it’s inscription is to William Burke, a grave robber, who was hanged for robbing graves in 1829 in Edinburgh.”

*Reproduced with the permission of Jack Coulehan and The American Medical Association: The Journal of the American Medical Association, January 5, 1994, 271(1):17n, Copyright 1994; and with special permission of Nightshade Press: First Photographs of Heaven, 1994.

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