Mortsafes were contraptions designed to protect graves from disturbance. The necessity for medical students to learn anatomy by attending dissections of human subjects was frustrated by the limited allowance of dead bodies - the corpses of executed criminals - granted by the government. As such, there had been body-snatching close to the schools of anatomy in Scotland since the early 18th century.
Many people were determined to protect the graves of newly deceased friends and relatives. The rich could afford heavy table tombstones, vaults, mausolea and iron cages around graves. The poor began to place flowers and pebbles on graves to detect disturbances and dig heather and branches into the soil to make disinterment more difficult. Large stones, often coffin-shaped, sometimes the gift of a wealthy man to the parish, were placed over new graves. Friends and relatives took turns or hired men to watch graves through the hours of darkness. Watching societies were often formed in towns, one in Glasgow having 2,000 members. But graves were still violated.
The mortsafe was invented in about 1816. These were iron or iron-and-stone devices of great weight, in many different designs. Often they were complex heavy iron contraptions of rods and plates, padlocked together - examples have been found close to all Scottish medical schools. A plate was placed over the coffin and rods with heads were pushed through holes in it. These rods were kept in place by locking a second plate over the first to form extremely heavy protection. It would be removed by two people with keys. They were placed over the coffins for about six weeks, then removed for further use when the body inside was sufficiently decayed.
[There are some fantastic examples of these still intact at Glasgow Necropolis]