In Spain, during the riots of May 1931, took place sporadically some macabre episodes known as ‘revolutionary exhumations’ [exhumaciones revolucionarias], that had already occurred in the anarchist uprisings of the late nineteenth century, for example in the Semana Tragica [‘Tragic Week’] of 1909, in 1919, and that will be much more frequent in 1935-1936, after Franco’s alzamiento.
This rare and extreme phenomenon is attributed both to Socialists and to the anarchist factions of Republican forces (even some followers of Alejandro Lerroux’s Partido Radical had taken part in similar actions up until the 1920s).
Those strongly radicalised forces, with the displays of corpses buried in churches or cemeteries, wanted to prove that Catholics cadavers decayed like the others, in order to dispel the idea that the bodies of those who died in odour of sanctity would be immune from putrefaction, and also to show vividly the decay of Church behind all the trappings.
It was a visual representation of ‘whited sepulchres’ and a violent outrage to an organization apparently powerful and rich, but, in fact, after the confiscation of property by the state, forced to close convents, hospices and shelters. This kind of animosity was indeed related also to the progressive impoverishment of Catholic Church, as explained by William J. Callahan (The Catholic Church in Spain 1875-1998), that led to a decrease of traditional pro-poor initiatives.
The exhumation was almost a form of reverse liturgy, with exhibition of corpses in the streets, sometimes dressed up and carried in procession. In 1935-1936 photos we can even see children’s remains. The following images refer to one of the most notorious episodes, occurred in 1936 in the Salesian complex of Madrid: