Digging up the Dead




In Probate and Family Court, you never know what kind of case will come through the door. We hear everything from divorce to adoption to will contests to “equity cases” – those cases that just don’t fit neatly into any other legal category. In 2009, I was assigned such a case. It involved a conflict over whether the remains of a man named William O’Connell should be disinterred and moved to a new location.


Just before receiving this case, I had read an article about the bones of George Gipp – the 1920 All American, the legend of Notre Dame football, the inspiration for coach Knute Rockne’s famous “Win one for the Gipper” line – being exhumed to determine if the Gipper had fathered a child out of wedlock. Gipp had died from strep throat in 1920 at age 25, a few days after his last game. 87 years later, his closest relative agreed to DNA testing to settle the paternity matter. The results were conclusive, Gipp was not the father. Some of Gipp’s more distant relatives are now suing over the manner of the exhumation, claiming emotional distress among other things, which reinforces the idea that allowing remains to be disturbed for any reason is always a sensitive matter.


The O’Connell case did not have anything to do with establishing paternity or extracting DNA; it was far more unusual. The case involved a property sale that could not go forward until the issue of what to do with the body had been settled. The case garnered a lot of publicity; one of the interested parties was U. S. Senator Paul Kirk, who had just been appointed the interim replacement for Ted Kennedy’s vacant seat. At my first meeting with the attorneys, they reported that they were going to resolve the case but that it would take some time and they would appreciate it if I held periodic reviews to “hold their feet to the fire”. While I was confident that they would ultimately resolve the issues, I enjoyed pondering the case. When Father Walsh would greet me after church and ask how work was going, I might have exaggerated a bit when I’d answer back, “I still have to figure out what to do with O’Connell’s bones!”


The final solution was a good one. The attorneys reported consummation of the sale of 64 acres of property from the Archdiocese of Boston to Boston College. At the time of the initial agreement to sell the property, the Archdiocese had agreed to relocate O’Connell’s body and had originally indicated that it would be moved to St. Sebastian’s School in Needham. Family members objected to both the exhumation and the proposed destination. The final agreement provided that the remains be moved just a short distance from their original resting place beneath a small chapel to a courtyard at St. John’s Seminary.


And that is how the body of His Eminence, Cardinal William Henry O’Connell – named Archbishop of Boston in 1907, elevated to Cardinal in 1911 – made their way from here to here:



















Probate and Family Court
Court Stories    Focus on Marriage    Separation and Divorce    Children    Annulment   About  Contact    Home