Written by C.W.S.
Most people don’t consider the fact that although they have committed the most heinous crimes imaginable, serial killers still leave their own bodies behind when they die. They don’t just disappear, nor are they simply disposed of completely without a trace. Just like everyone else, serial killers are cremated, have gravesites, and even leave behind family members that cared for them. But unlike regular folks, the infamous nature of these people leads to interesting circumstances around their deaths. Sometimes their bodies even become a way to figure out how to prevent the horrifying behaviors that these killers have exhibited.
Convicted of the murders of three women, Bundy admitted to killing at least 30 others across seven states between 1974 and 1978. The charismatic Bundy was known for his good looks and his sadistic treatment of his victims. He received three death sentences in two separate trials.
Bundy was executed in the electric chair in Florida in 1989. His body was cremated, and in compliance with his will, his ashes were scattered in the Cascade Mountains in Washington State. The remains of at least four of his victims were discovered in this location.
Dahmer was arrested in 1991 when police found body parts in his apartment. He was convicted of the murders of 16 men and boys. Known for his cannibalistic tendencies, Dahmer was sentenced to sixteen life sentences.
After his death in 1994 by a lethal beating from a fellow inmate, his body was cremated—all except for his brain. The state pathologist's office held the brain in formaldehyde at the request of his mother, who wanted it to be studied by scientists to determine if there could be any link between her son’s biology and the crimes he committed. His father desired for the brain to be cremated, as was his son's wish. A judge ruled in favor of cremation, and the ashes were split between his parents.
John Wayne Gacy Jr.
Gacy, also known as the Killer Clown, was convicted of 33 murders of young men and teenagers that he lured into his Norwood Park, Illinois home and then disposed of their bodies in the crawlspace. He received the nickname because of the photos of him performing as his alter ego, Pogo the Clown, at children’s birthday parties and charity events. He received 12 death sentences for the murders and was executed by lethal injection in 1994.
Though nothing is known for certain about his remains, it has been reported that his body was cremated and the ashes were given to his family, but just like Dahmer, they kept his brain intact. Psychiatrist Helen Morrison, who acted as a witness for the defense during Gacy’s trial, claimed that Gacy was legally insane at the time of the murders. The jury rejected the insanity defense, but Gacy’s brain was removed before his cremation and given to Morrison to study, who reportedly keeps it in her basement.
Wuornos, who was convicted of killing seven men by shooting them point blank between 1989 and 1990, claimed self-defense and stated that all the men had either raped her or attempted to rape her during her time as a sex worker. Regardless, she was found guilty and sentenced to death for six of the murders, and her sentence was carried out by lethal injection in 2002.
After her death, Wuornos’ body was cremated and given to her childhood friend Dawn Botkins. Botkins spread Wuornos’ ashes at the base of a tree in her home state of Michigan. Wuornos’ had requested that Natalie Merchant’s song “Carnival” be played during her funeral. Interestingly, the song was also played during the credits of Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, a 2003 documentary film by Nick Broomfield.
Though technically not a serial killer, Ed Gein’s legacy has inspired horror movies like Silence of the Lambs, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Psycho. Most famous for both his unhealthy relationship with his mother and his propensity for exhuming graves and creating household items out of human body parts (human skin lamp shades, nipple belts, skull bowls), Gein was also guilty of the murders of at least two women, Mary Hogan and Bernice Worden, and possibly his brother. He was found unfit to stand trial and was sent to a mental health facility.
Gein died in July of 1984, at the Mendota Mental Health Institute at the age of 77 from secondary lung cancer. He was buried at the Plainfield cemetery with his other deceased family members. Over time, people chipped away pieces of the gravestone for souvenirs and the full stone was stolen in 2000. Found near Seattle, it now resides in storage at the Waushara County Sheriff’s office. Gein’s grave remains unmarked, but is between his parents' and brother’s grave sites.
It's certainly strange that these people who have grown to almost mythic proportions, that become our physical symbols of evil, leave behind a body just like any regular human being. And that’s the thing—these people are people. They had loved ones, sometimes; they had childhoods and jobs and relationships. Whether their bodies are simply cremated or buried, marked modestly with graves that will be picked apart by a darker kind of tourist, or studied by doctors who believe they might be able to find a link between violent behavior and brain chemistry, they remain in our imaginations like ghosts that will never leave.