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ON THE TOWN

HERE LIES THE TRUTH : Make No Bones About It, DNA Testing Gives Dead Men the Power to Tell Tales

August 27, 1995|Patt Morrison

Can someone please stop all this infernal digging?

Of course, I mean Metro Rail, but not just Metro Rail, though that's a laudable beginning. The way those tunnels keep collapsing and being re-excavated reminds me of a make-work project in the Army: Dig a hole, then dig another for the dirt to fill the first, and so on until you make corporal, or get an MTA contract.

It's more than the burrowing frenzy of summer gardeners. Californians have the whole year to muck around with mulch, but some primal Ice Age memory must concentrate that agricultural energy into a high-summer burst, so that on Saturday mornings the nurseries are now as jammed as festival seating was at a Who concert before we got too cranky to sit on the infield base line for six hours to see a man smash his guitar.

For a time I thought "Apollo 13" might invert the digging impulse--space, the final frontier, a man's reach should exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for and all that. But no, we keep looking down, shoveling at the restless earth, exhuming. Graves are being opened up faster than Planet Hollywood restaurants.

Worst off are the poor folks of Paradise Memorial Park in Santa Fe Springs. Relatives scraped together enough money for what they used to call "a decent burial" so that their loved ones wouldn't end up in potter's field . . . and now they find that graves have reportedly been emptied and refilled for as long as 30 years.

That was in the name of profit. In the name of science and history, Americans have disinterred Colorado cannibal Alferd Packer and the doctor who shot Looziana pol Huey Long.

Wayne Newton, who claims descent from Pocahontas, wants to have her dug up and shipped from England for re-burial in Virginia. So relieved am I that he didn't propose bringing her to Las Vegas as the lobby display for an Indian-themed hotel-casino that I'm inclined to let him do it.

Zachary Taylor, "Old Rough and Ready," our 12th President, was hauled out of his final resting place because the author of an unpublished biography believes he was poisoned. He wasn't. Abe Lincoln has been uncrated four times, most recently in 1901, but now that we have some of his hair and bone chips to test whether he had Marfan syndrome or may have killed Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, he can rest in peace.

The bones of the last Russian imperial family were excavated in Siberia, but a couple of Romanov skeletons are missing, so the digging continues. Bulgarian scientists have sent to England for testing the bones from a grave they opened on the suspicion that its occupant was the last czar's youngest daughter, Anastasia, whose name means "resurrection."

Civil rights activist Medgar Evers' exhumed body gave silent testimony that helped to convict his murderer nearly 30 years after the fact. Jesse James was disinterred just this summer--that is, if it is Jesse James, which is the reason many of these excavations happen--to prove that the body under the sod matches the headstone.

We are not the first to do this. Hamlet's gravedigger casually unearthed poor Yorick's skull, giving him fame if not peace everlasting. People used to exhume saints for a sanctified peek, maybe a relic or two, and to verify saintliness, for saints are said to decompose hardly at all.

But we are the first with the means to adjudge who's who--DNA testing. One day, leaving a DNA fragment on file--a bit of skin, a drop of blood, a strand of hair--may be a routine part of probate, settling any arguments among claimants to thrones, estates or notorious names. Not that DNA will satisfy everyone.

From the skepticism that has greeted the Simpson case science, you'd think DNA stands for "does not add up." But even that resistance is nothing compared to what science will encounter at the Triple Crown, the Grand Slam, the Comstock Lode of exhumations: Elvis.

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