Buried Alive: For Those Who Prefer Death To Enema

When the physician utters those dire words to call the time of death, no amount of denial can cast doubt over the veracity of his measurement. With the technology of modern medicine and traditions of practice, judging whether a body is alive or dead is no longer an uncertain affair. The situation of being prematurely buried alive has become the subject of horror movies rather than a common fear. Our ancestors weren't so lucky. For most of written history, absence of a heartbeat was considered to be the final call. While ancient Greek and Arabic legends exist of poor souls waking in coffins, the issue did not get significant attention until the seventeenth century when a resurgence of medical study grew alongside a subculture of superstition and myth. People began to wonder how one truly knew when a body had died. Primitive stethoscopes did not appear until the late 1800s and were just as unreliable as the deaf ears of an old country doctor. What if the heartbeat was too slow or faint to be detected?

Whether true or not, stories abounded about screaming corpses exhumed after having eaten their own arms for survival, grave robbers who discovered a living body in the coffin, or dead pregnant mothers that had given birth to babies who screamed from six feet under. Accounts given by seemingly reliable sources spoke of numerous occasions when individuals declared dead had been revived on their way to the burial. This isn't so hard to believe. Even doctors today will admit that a body heavily sedated or in hypothermic shock will appear to be dead by all basic means of measurements.

To allay the fear of awakening in tombs, various solutions were proposed. Entire hospitals for the dead were constructed to house corpses under surveillance until putrefaction set in (or didn't, in the case of the still living bodies). After this was determined to be disrespectful both to the recently dead and the poor workers attending the rows of decaying bodies, a whole trade in designing security coffins began. One of the first models, designed in 1798 by German village parson P.G. Pessler, included a hollow tube that led to aboveground. Not only would the tube let in air, but a rope attached to the church bell could be thread through the tube, allowing the corpse to really get the village's attention should he wake entombed. As it was later determined that a poor revived soul might be unable to pull against the weight of the church bell, other models were created with their own personal bells or flag systems, all controlled by a rope placed within reach of the alleged corpse. Some later models even devised a clever network of string that could activate a bell given even the slightest movement of the body. Inventor Johann Georg Hypelli threw out the rope idea entirely and instead designed an alarm activated by the bang of the resurrected's head against the coffin lid as he tried to sit up. Other means included the placement of a trumpet in the mouth of the deceased, or building coffins a lock and key or spring-loaded lit and including convenient tunnels, ladders or elevator systems in the grave. Some took to burying items with their deceased relatives such as pickaxes and supplies of food and wine. As this practice advanced over time, some coffins were luxuriously outfitted with electric lights, a heater and a telephone linked to the graveyard keeper's house.

An early version of a security coffin, with above-ground bell or flag attached to the corpse by rope.

Alongside the efforts of developing means for correcting premature burials, physicians began to wonder how they might keep from making the mistake in the first place. There needed to be a surer means of calling death apart from listening for a heartbeat or simply waiting for the individual to decompose. The initial methods seemed disrespectfully cruel. A bugle blast in the ear, rancid smelling salts applied to the nose, or rapidly yanking on the tongue would surely elicit a response in the non-deceased. Some physicians even took to cutting off fingers or scalding the face or anus with a hot iron, though those who were revived by these means were not as ready to celebrate as one might expect.

Various scientific and medical organizations worldwide began offering prizes for acceptable means of determining death. Antoine Louis proposed that an enema of tobacco smoke would do the trick. A physician placed a tube in the body’s anus, then took in a bit of tobacco smoke from his pipe and blew it forcefully into the back end of the recently deceased. In 1784, Dr. P.J.B. Previnaire improved on the idea by constructing an elaborate smoke enema apparatus called Der Doppelblaser. It consisted of a series of pipes - one end thrust into the anus of the supposed corpse and the other attached by a powerful bellows to a stove full of tobacco smoke. Though the practice didn’t enjoy much longevity, it did contribute to an expression we still use today: “blow smoke up your ass.”

As the years went on, the techniques became more advanced. Around the turn of the 19th century, some doctors were using galvanic apparati to detect the electrical pulses in living muscle. The poor man's version of this test was placing the corpse’s finger in the physician's ear as he listened for the buzzing sound given off by minor muscle contractions. The methods were no less cruel at times. Physiologist Xavier Bichat studied death by watching the struggles of drowning kittens (yes, really) and determined that there really was no single universal sign of death. French doctor Jules-Antoine Josat invented a pair of pincers to pinch the allegedly deceased's nipples, while another masochistic physician suggested placing leeches on the anus. Vying for his claim on the prize offered by the Academy of Sciences, a German named Middledorph proposed that a long needle with a flag attached on one end be thrust into the heart of the corpse in question. If the heart were still beating, the flag would wave. Many years later, in 1895, a doctor named Icard attempted to allay a family's fears that their daughter was not truly dead by performing Middledorph's test. As he plunged the needle into the girl's hear, the family cried out that if she hadn't been dead before, she certainly was now!

Dr. Icard went on to develop his own methods, including injecting a flourescent dye beneath the skin. If the blood was circulating, the skin would turn yellow and the eyes bright green, truly completing the picture of the living dead. Dr. Icard won the 2,500 franc prize from the Academy of Sciences that year, and again in 1900 for an even more humorous suggestion. A piece of paper with the words "I am really dead" written in acetate of lead would be placed in the body's nose. If the individual were truly a corpse, the beginning stages of decomposition would release gasses that would make the words appear like invisible ink set to flame.

For further reading: Jan Bondeson. Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear. W.W. Norton & Company; 2001. ISBN:039304906X

*Images from Jan Bondeson's private collection

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