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Some grave concerns

Eternal rest isn't what it used to be. Scientists, kinfolk and the conspiratorially minded are seeking to dig up the departed at a rate that recalls the bad old days, when medical students raided cemeteries in search of final exam material.

What's behind this outbreak of disintermania? Ask Dr. Science. New technologies can prove foul play, identify the anonymous or determine whether the deceased gets to wear a paternity suit.

It's a relief that one current case _ involving children Thomas Jefferson may or may not have had with Sally Hemings, his slave and purported mistress _ does not have anyone dashing for shovels. Yet. An effort is being made to settle this debate with genetic material from the living: DNA provided by descendants of Jefferson and of Hemings. But a pathologist connected to the case says the test results won't be conclusive. Then what? Will a Raider of the Lost Genes shatter Monticello's sylvan calm by bursting into the third president's crypt for more evidence?

Sure in the conviction that historical secrets can literally be unearthed, the curious have raised numerous notables in recent years. Trouble is, they never seem to discover anything new. Consider these examples:

Zachary Taylor (1784-1850), 12th president of the United States. Medical opinion cited gastroenteritis as the cause of Old Rough and Ready's death, but it was suggested he had been poisoned. In 1991 Taylor's remains were removed from his Louisville, Ky., vault and tested for the presence of arsenic. There was none. I'd like to test the person responsible for this caper, however, for the presence of strawberry daiquiris.

Lee Harvey Oswald (1939-1963), accused assassin of John F. Kennedy. Oswald was exhumed in 1981 after it was suggested a "double" had been buried in his grave in Fort Worth, Texas. According to dental records, the body in the grave was the real Oswald.

Jesse James (1847-1882). His long slumber was interrupted in 1995 because feuding factions claimed to be the famed outlaw's real descendants and wanted to see whose DNA matched. There was also the obligatory theory: It wasn't Jesse in the plot in Kearney, Mo. Not to mention speculation about the caliber and number of bullets that killed James in 1882. By now you've guessed about the DNA testing: It was Jesse, by a strand.

Despite repeated homage to the obvious, the pace of this exhume boom has picked up in recent months:

The remains of the French singer and actor Yves Montand were disinterred in March for DNA tests to settle a paternity suit. He had refused such tests before his death in 1991.

In Alaska, a scientist recently exhumed victims of the 1918 influenza epidemic, collecting tissue samples to help re-create the lethal virus. (File this under "Box, Pandora's.")

A forensic scientist wants to exhume the explorer Meriwether Lewis, whose gunshot demise in 1809 was a suicide. He thinks he can show that Lewis was murdered.

All this post-mortem poking raises serious questions. When do legitimate concerns turn into gratuitous prying? Are we indulging our morbid curiosity simply because new scientific toys exist to be played with?

Professional ethicists could do more justice to the subject, but for my part, I'm against backhoe-induced resurrection unless it's for something truly important, such as someone getting buried with my only set of car keys.

This mortal's final thought on the matter is simple, and will also serve nicely as his epitaph. I want a big stone with a small inscription: "It's me!"

Glen Slattery is the author of the forthcoming Water Heaters Can Fly (and Other Home Truths).

New York Times News Service