Grandma’s corpse theft leads to journalistic horrors

After a body was stolen from a mausoleum in a NJ cemetery, police and the press blamed Satanists and Palo Mayombe. Photo by Flickr user scottnj.

At first, it sounds like something out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or a low-budget horror flick: in late July, thieves broke into the Spinelli tomb at New Jersey’s Greenwood Cemetery, smashed the marble slab protecting a casket, and then opened the casket. They made off with the body of the family’s matron, Pauline, who was buried there in 1996.

But from there, it gets truly horrific.

Headlines describing the theft have blamed everything from cults to Satanists. We might expect this from outlets such as Catholic Online, but even ABC is playing up the “woo-woo” angle:

A satanic cult could be responsible for breaking into a mausoleum and stealing the remains of a New Jersey grandmother who died 16 years ago, police said today.

It goes on from there, because apparently the family believes that a poorly understood and peaceful religion could somehow be responsible:

“We did a lot of research and my husband found a group online that uses bodies in some kind of a ritual and they need the bones for their ritual. The group is called Palo. There were some bodies found in Newark and Woodbridge and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, speculated to have been used by this group,” [granddaughter Paula Lafollette] said. “Who else would want a body?”

To research this claim, did the reporter talk to a respected leader in the Palo Mayombe Community? No — they went to “occult expert” Rick Ross. Surprisingly, he actually provided some factual information about Palo:

“The likelihood they would go into a mausoleum and drag out a body seems remote. Usually these hybrid religious groups [including Palo] use chicken and other animal bones,” Ross said. “Typically these acts end up being individual perpetrators not linked to an organized group.”

Still, it’s disturbing that these folks believe that “Satanic cults” exist — despite no evidence — or that Satanists dig up bodies. Or that Palo Mayombe is the same thing as Satanism. Or that there’s anything wrong with Palo Mayombe or Satanism. Or that their freaked-out notions made it into several national news reports.

To me, it seems extremely unlikely that someone would break into this tomb completely at random. Sure, stealing a corpse from an above-ground setting is easier than digging up a grave. But why Pauline Spinelli? Whoever took her body, as awful as it was, had to break through a metal chain, smash a marble slab, pry open a casket, and then smuggle out her body. That’s an Olympic amount of effort.

Could they have wanted HER body, specifically? Did she have any enemies? Did her family make anyone angry? Obviously this is all speculation on my part, but it seems more likely that someone took her body to upset her family than that a “Satanic cult” or Palo practitioners picked her at random for rituals that either don’t exist or don’t use human bones.

I’m not saying Paula or her family deserved this, which is obviously and understandably causing them grief. I’m just saying it makes no sense to blame faiths and practices for whom stealing a grandmother’s bones is as abhorrent as it is for the Spinelli family.


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