The Matter of the Coffin Lid Larceny

Heinz Noonan, the ‘Bearded Holmes’ of the Sandersonville Police Department, was about to leave for a saunter down the Sanderonsville beachfront to make sure there were no Muslims coming ashore in bathtubs. It was Friday afternoon and there was not a single active crime folder on his desk. As he had learned in his youth, there is nothing wrong with being prepared. That being said, there must be some manner of Muslim invasion because that is what the Sandersonville Commissioner of Homeland Security kept complaining about. The grousing, Noonan knew, was all focused on generating more Homeland Security moneys for the Sandersonville Office. Therefore, for Noonan to be searching the beaches of the Outer Banks for the anticipated Muslim invasion was within his job purview. The search for Muslims invading in bathtubs was Noonan’s way of stating he was ‘on the job’ while on the beach but that ‘nothing came of it’ because no Muslims had come ashore in bathtubs – and he would continue to be alert for the impending Muslim invasion by spending more time on the beaches of the Outer Banks.

He was in the process of bidding adieu for the weekend when Harriet came into his office and whispered, “Do you know what Beethoven is doing right now?”

“Beethoven? You mean the dog?”

“No, the composer. Do you know what he is doing right now?”

“I suppose he’s lying in his coffin.”

“No,” Harriet chuckled. “He’s de-composing.”

“Oh, v-e-r-y f-u-n-n-y. Is there a reason we are talking about decomposing?”

“Line One,” Harriet said as she pointed at his office phone and then made kind of a flighty shaking of her head and flashing her eyes as if to say ‘Strange things are happening.’ Then, verbally, she said, “Baptist minister wants to know why someone stole his coffin lids.”

* * *

“May the Lord be with you.”

“I hope so. I can always use help, divine or otherwise,”

“Captain Noonan?”

“Not unless there’s a crime. Until then, I’m Heinz.”

“Well, there is a crime here, Captain Noonan. Someone stole four coffin lids from my church.”

Noonan dug for a notebook on his desk. When he could not find one with blank pages, he went for his desk drawer while he spoke. “Reverend …”

“Pastor. I lead a congregation.”

“I stand corrected. Pastor, I didn’t catch your first name.”

“I didn’t give it. I do not want this, this, issue, to leak to the press. I am sure you understand as I represent a church.”

“I’ll do what I can. Now, first, your name. I have your phone number on the phone screen here.”

“Pastor Blankenship. Of the Sandersonville Baptist Congregation.”

“I was not aware we had a Baptist Congregation here in town.”

“We’re not new but we are very low-key.”

“I see, Pastor. Now, the coffin lids….”

“Yes. We had a number of coffin lids here at the church. They were never used over bodies, let me assure you. We use them as tabletops.”

“I understand, pastor. Where were the coffin lids when they were stolen?”

“In the back of the church. We were doing some house cleaning, er, church cleaning, and we took the furniture from inside the church outside so we could scrub the floors.”

“Were the coffin lids piled outside?”

“Yes. Standing on end. In the back of the church along with everything else. It’s not as if they were there out there alone. But, then again, I guess you cannot be alone if there are four of you, er, them.”

“So there were four coffin lids missing?”

There was silence for a moment and then the pastor came back with a tired remark. “This is not a gag call, Captain. We had four coffin lids and they were stolen off church property. I’m reporting the theft.”

Noonan said seriously. “Stealing coffin lids is not a usual crime. But I do take the theft seriously. How much furniture was taken out the church with the coffin lids?”

“Quite a bit. We don’t have pews that are bolted to the floor. We have free-standing benches. So we took out the benches. Then there was the furniture from the break room, the restrooms, church office, library, and some folding metal chairs from the entryway area. The weather was good so we didn’t cover the furniture.”

“How long was furniture left out?”

“Two days.”

“When did you notice the coffin lids were gone?”

“When we could not find them to put them back in the church library.”

“Anything special about the coffin lids? Were they old, antiques?”

“No. Just wooden coffin lids. A donation from a funeral home.”

“A long time ago?”

“Last year.”

“Any chance the funeral home needed them and took them back.”

“No. We asked.”

“Any surveillance equipment in the church?”


Noonan chuckled to himself. “OK, Pastor. Do you have a pen and paper?”


“I am going to give you a number of questions. I am going to do some research and when I call you back in a day or two, I’ll want those answers.”


“Here we go. How many people work in the church, how many are new, have you had any new members lately, when was the last time you saw the coffin lids, was any lid unique from the others, and that’s all I can think of at the moment.”

“Fine with me. Like I said before, I, we, do not want any publicity.”

* * *

Any time Noonan had a loo-loo call he turned to his two tried-and-true sources of information, history and the local newspapers. He didn’t have to plumb the local papers because the church was in Sandersonville and he read the Sandersonville Reporter every day. But he knew next to nothing about coffins – or their lids. So that was where he started.

It did not take him long to be impressed with the history of the burial industry. Necessity is surely the mother of invention because when there is a need, there will be someone to invent something that will satisfy that need and put money in their pocket. Early in his historical investigation he discovered a patent in 1878 for a coffin torpedo. So many bodies were being snatched out of their gravesites in that era that the deceased rich could be buried with an explosive device that would kill – or at least injure – body snatchers. Probably the best incident of body-snatching was that of Abraham Lincoln. Eleven years after being assassinated, several individuals tried to steal his body. They made it into his tomb but when a shot was fired, they ran off. As the story developed, the bodysnatchers were actually counterfeiters. Their plan was to hold the corpse of Lincoln hostage to release one of their own who was in jail. Body snatching, the industry, was killed, so to speak, in 1913 when most states passed anatomy laws that allowed responsible institutions like medical schools to buy bodies. But it did not stop the body-snatching. On March 1, 1978, Charlie Chaplin’s body was dug out its gave and held for $600,000 ransom. Chaplin’s widow never paid and the body was recovered two months later.

Noonan also picked some interesting historical tidbits. The reason the dead are buried six feet deep was because of an ordinance by the Lord Mayor of London during the plague of 1665. He ordered all bodies buried six feet deep so they would not be disturbed by farmer’s plows the next planting season. Additionally, the term “coffin” was a French corruption of the Greek word for “basket” and when a soldier was killed on a battlefield, he was often buried with no shoes because their bodies bloated after death and shoes could not be put on their feet.

Another historical tidbit he picked up was the origin of the word “dead ringer.” There was great fear among the rich that they might be buried alive in a coffin. To retrieve the alleged-to-be dead before they really did die, a cord was wrapped around the corpse’s hand and it was attached to a bell above ground. That way the dead could ring the bell and be saved. Of course, Noonan mused, if there were a breeze of any strength every bell in the cemetery would ring. How many people were actually buried alive? No one knew for certain but in 1896 a study of the deceased and being buried alive was conducted in Fort Randall, Missouri. Only 2% of the coffins showed scratch marks indicating the individual might still have been alive when buried. Interestingly, the term “ringer” does not come from “dead ringer.” In the 1880s, a “ringer” was a false horse. The con would set up a race with a “ringer,” a horse that did not look as though it could run a race, much less win one. Then, when the bets had been placed, horses would be  switched so the fast one ran the race. And won.

The only case of coffin lid thefts Noonan could find was in 1944 when he stumbled on a poem written about a manager of the Aberdeen Crematorium who was found guilty of stealing coffin lids.

Aberdeen’s crematorium chief –

Not yet convicted as a thief,

May find himself in Peterhead

If it is proved he robbed the dead.


The manager of the Crematorium , James Dewar, was found guilty of misappropriating 1,100 coffin lids from unknown people, 44 from known corpses and two coffins. As bodies came in for cremation, he removing the lids and gave them away. Some were given, possibly sold, to other funeral homes while others were passed along to the National Fire Service where they were converted into desks, cabinets and rabbit hutches. Large numbers of lids were given to employees of the Aberdeen Crematorium to be used as firewood.

Dewar had a reasonable defense. Technically, and legally, the Crematorium owned the coffins and lids, the families of the deceased did not. The Crematorium was paid to cremate the remains which was done. If it was done without the lid of the coffin, nothing illegal had occurred. Further, he claimed the Crematorium was paid too little for its services by the local hospital so the sales of the lids was both economic and reasonable. The defense did not do him any good. The crime was viewed as particularly ghoulish as it was conducted at the height of the Second World War when the trauma of deaths touched everyone. He was sentenced to three years in prison.

All these being read, Noonan had zip. So, when you have zip, ask an expert. The coffin lids were donated by a local undertaker and, in Sandersonville, there was only one. So Noonan gave him a call.

“I’ve been expecting your call,” Harold Pomeroy said when Noonan identified himself.

“In a small town, word gets around,” Noonan said as he flipped to a blank page in his notebook.

“For the record, Captain,” Pomeroy said before Noonan cut him off.

“Heinz. Until there’s a crime, I’m Heinz.”

“No, Captain. When the police call, there is usually a crime involved. Now, Captain, as I was saying, for the record, we donated the four coffin lids to the church. We occasionally have coffin lids leftover and have no use for them. They take up space. Someone suggested we ask the local churches if they had any interest in the lids. That’s how they ended up in the church.”

Noonan shook his head as if trying to clear it of confusion. “How did you end up with extra coffin lids in the first place?”

There was a prolonged moment of silence, then Pomeroy sighed. “Captain, undertaking is a very dirty business. I do not mean that in the bookkeeping sense. For most people, the demise of an individual is predictable. Uncle Harry has cancer and he will die. Arrangements for his burial are made long before he succumbs. When he crosses over, his cadaver is taken to the medical examiner. Since Uncle Harry had cancer and his death certificate reads cancer, that’s pretty much the end of the story. If Uncle Harry is to be buried in a coffin the family has already chosen, he is embalmed, placed in that coffin, there is a service of some kind and Uncle Harry is buried.”

“I see,” said Noonan. “The lids.”

“I’m getting to that, Captain. The Uncle Harrys are the bulk of our business. Then there those who die with no plans for burial. The might be derelicts found on the beach or an elderly individual who died of natural causes but was not discovered for several days. In these cases, the bodies have bloated. Those bodies go to the medical examiner as well.  If the examiner cannot find any indication of violence and we get the body here. We can get the body into a coffin for cremation but the swelling often makes it impossible to use a lid. So the body and coffin are consumed and we stack the lid in the furnace room.”

“So who owns those lids?”

“Legally, as far as we are concerned, we do. We have been paid to cremate a cadaver which we did. Even though we own the lids, we do not sell them. We are a very secretive industry, Captain. We live with a somber look. It’s our image. We are constantly under scrutiny. If we show up at a meeting, everyone wonders who in the crowd is about to die. We can’t tell jokes, even in private, in case the word leaks out. One slip and we’re not only the laughing stock of the community, business is taken elsewhere. So, we do not sell the lids. We give them away. We don’t know who would steal coffin lids and we don’t care because those lids are not ours. They are the church’s. We do not need the publicity.”

“I can understand,” Noonan said. “Do you have any idea what coffin lids could be used for?”

“They are wood,” Pomeroy said. “They could be converted to any wood product: desktops, beds, used as walls. I don’t know. I don’t want to know. Do you have any more questions?”

“Just a few,” Noonan said as he scribbled in his notebook. “Are all the lids you give away the same?”

Noonan heard Pomeroy sigh on the other end of the line. “Captain, coffins come in all designs. Some are of glass. Others are lead-lined. Some are ornate and others plain. Coffins are what people pay for. We provide what they want. Some want a disposal as cheap as possible. Others want their loved one to be as complete as possible for the Resurrection. Some want antique hardware on the coffins, others want the coffin painted. All of the missing coffin lids came from our least expensive model, so to speak. Those coffins are made with plain but sturdy wood and painted brown. They are waterproof because some will actually have bodies within when they are buried.”

A dull gong sounded in a distant cortex of Noonan’s brain.

“Captain, whatever happened to those coffin lids has nothing to do with us and we do not want any connection made in the press.”

* * *

“Well,” said Harriet when she came to work on Monday morning and flopped in the empty chair next to Noonan’s desk, “Did you have a good time on the beach this weekend?”

“Excellent, as a matter of fact. It’s amazing what a bit of time on the beach will do for you.”

Harriet gave him a don’t-sell-me-a-dog look. “From what I’ve heard, you spent quite a bit of time near the breakers.”

“I did. Talked to a lot of people. Did you know there is an LBGT surf group?”

“No, I did not. But then again, I guess LBGT people are everywhere, so to speak. Fine with me. The world is full of different people.”

“Yes, indeed,” Noonan said looking at the ceiling. “And, did you know the LBGT surfers do not have a nice thing to say about churches that will not recognize them as, well, full-fledged citizens.”

“N-o-o-o,” Harriet gave Noonan an odd look. “Where is this conversation going?”

“Going?” Noonan gave him an innocent look. “What makes you think this conversation is going anywhere?”

“Because I may have been born in the morning but not yesterday morning. The last thing you did Friday afternoon was talk to a Baptist minister …”

“Pastor. He insisted he was a pastor.”

“OK, the last thing you did on Friday was talk to a Baptist pastor about some stolen coffin lids.”

“Really? I do recall talking to a pastor but I don’t know anything about any stolen coffin lids. Neither does he, by the way.”

“So they magically re-appeared?”

“I didn’t say that. The Baptist church believed it was missing four coffin lids and, well, you know, God does provide.”

“He’s never been that good with me. So they found the coffin lids?”

“Apparently so. The Baptists were pleased because they did not want it known in the community they were using coffin lids as tabletops in their church.”

“I see,” Harriet said. Then she said, “Let me guess, coffin lids suddenly appeared.”

“That’s what I was told. I’m sure everyone is happy. The purveyor of coffin lids is just as happy he and his company are not in the public eye.”

“So everyone is happy?”

“No, not really. The LBGT surfers still have a bone to pick with the Baptist Church.”

Harriet gave Noonan a long look then she said, “Let me see if I can guess what happened. The LBGT surfers saw the coffin lids and took them for a ride on the ocean waves. That would have been their way of sticking it to the church.”

“Oh, it could have happened that way. When I talked with them I noticed their beach fire had some slabs of wood being consumed. I suggested the wood might have come from coffin lids. They denied it, of course, and said those were just planks they had found and tried to use them as surfboards. As a novelty.”

“And it didn’t work,” Harriet said.

“So they said,” Noonan responded. “So they burned the boards.”

“Uh-huh,” said Harriet skeptically. “Did you mention that they might be evidence of a crime?”

Noonan looked at the ceiling tiles. “I might have mentioned that some coffin lids had vanished from a Baptist Church and who knew, maybe, someone in law enforcement might look at those boards as evidence of theft. But, of course, if the boards were burned …”

“Which they were.”

Noonan rubbed his hands. “Well, it was a productive weekend of work. Some coffin lids vanished. Some coffin lids appeared. And some LBGT surfers got their moment to stick it to the church that does not recognize them.”

“All in day’s work, right?”

“Weekend, Harriet, a weekend. By the way, I have a question for you.”

“Is this a joke?”

“God forbid! If a songwriter is buried and he is decomposing, do we have to listen to his recordings backward?”

Steven C. Levi is a sixty-something freelance historian and commercial writer who lives in Anchorage, Alaska, his home for past 40 years. He has a BA in European History and MA in American history from the University of California Davis and San Jose State. He has more than 80 books in print or on Kindle.