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A warm cup of Halloween cheer
October 31, 2008 5:34 PM   Subscribe

"How would you like to tour my famous tomb?" he asked. "It's impossible to be buried alive there."

This gentleman is almost alone in his concerns today, thanks to modern medicine's advances (and advances in embalming). But in the 19th century, plans to prevent live burial were frequent. Timothy Clark Smith of Vermont had a window installed in his grave, where you can check on him to this day. The Germans instituted Leichenhauser (or "waiting mortuaries"), halls in which corpses rested among flowers, their fingers tied to alarm bells, until it was clear to everyone that it was time for their burial.

Live burial was thankfully more of a nightmare than a real occurrence. No one, to any doctor's knowledge, ever walked out of a Leichenhaus; no one, so far as I have found, rang a bell in his grave.

(The eponymous, and best, book on the subject, whose author is quoted in the article.)
posted by Countess Elena (27 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fascinating. Reading about the Leichenhauser made me wish there had been a delayed Lazarus sign in at least one of the deceased.
In what must surely be the basis for a new horror movies researchers have just released a study relating to the spontaneous movements (such as jerking of fingers or bending of toes) of brain dead people. These movements occur in 39 percent of brain-dead patients and can be disturbing to family members and health care professionals and even cause them to question the brain-death diagnosis. All this macabre information is included in a study published in the journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

One of the most startling movements for family members and health care professionals is called the "Lazarus sign." It is a sequence of movements lasting for a few seconds that can occur in some brain dead patients, either spontaneously or right after the ventilator is disconnected. According to Bueri, "It starts with stretching of the arms, followed by crossing or touching of the arms on the chest, and finally falling of the arms alongside the torso. It is also a spinal reflex, but it can be disturbing to family members and others who see this."
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:46 PM on October 31, 2008


As a fan of the macabre, this is right up my alley.
posted by ob at 5:49 PM on October 31, 2008


I imagine this must be a common fear among vampires.
posted by Citizen Premier at 5:55 PM on October 31, 2008


Mr. de Melo...built a burial vault he could survive in because he's gripped by a rare condition called taphephobia, the fear of being buried alive.


Well it's certainly not rare due to a preponderance of people who relish being buried alive.
Perhaps his grip on probability is looser than mine.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 5:56 PM on October 31, 2008


I think de Melo's problem is really that he doesn't believe he'll die. I don't think most of us really give it any thought, whereas he's preoccupied with burial.
I have to admit, though, that I find the idea of being left in a field to be eaten and to rot much more appealing than being buried.
posted by Citizen Premier at 6:14 PM on October 31, 2008


...10 cases in which bodies were accidentally dissected before death...

Not very far, one presumes. Or maybe I mean HOPES. I mean...for crying out loud!
posted by DU at 6:27 PM on October 31, 2008


Saved by the bell
posted by caddis at 6:34 PM on October 31, 2008


AAAAARGH!!!! NOOOO!!!! NO!!! NOOOO!!! nooo!! no!

*scratches*

noooo??

...




Great post!
posted by malocchio at 6:54 PM on October 31, 2008


This hardly ever happens anymore.
posted by ColdChef at 6:55 PM on October 31, 2008 [23 favorites]


This hardly ever happens anymore.

Hardly? HARDLY?!?

Christ, now I AM scared. Thanks, mortician dude.
posted by malocchio at 7:03 PM on October 31, 2008


This was my greatest fear as a child. I used to have nightmares about it, thanks in great part to watching horror movies.

Then, when I was about six or seven, I learned about embalming and what they do to you to prepare you for burial. It became obvious that if you weren't already dead, you would be by the time they finished embalming you. And just like that, with that insight, my fears and nightmares about being buried alive completely ceased.

For an awesome short story filled with brooding related to being buried alive, check out "The Boarded Window" by Ambrose Bierce. Only a few pages long, it's a quick read and one of my favorites.

Happy Hallowe'en MeFi!
posted by darkstar at 8:04 PM on October 31, 2008


I chucked for a moment at the thought, if that guy's test run had failed; buried by his own petard.
posted by pwnguin at 8:06 PM on October 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


Then, when I was about six or seven, I learned about embalming and what they do to you to prepare you for burial. It became obvious that if you weren't already dead, you would be by the time they finished embalming you. And just like that, with that insight, my fears and nightmares about being buried alive completely ceased.

And was replaced by the dread of spending eternity with a plastic screw in your anus.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 8:10 PM on October 31, 2008 [3 favorites]


Or maybe that's just me.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 8:22 PM on October 31, 2008


LOL! :D
posted by darkstar at 8:26 PM on October 31, 2008


WHy doesn't he just make the crypt door openable from the inside? Then he can dash out in his sharp suit and give the mortician quite a scare. (That's how the story ends, in fact -- the mortician dies of fright on the spot and is himself buried. But it turns out he'd merely fainted.)
posted by SteelyDuran at 11:20 PM on October 31, 2008


Embalming, made popular during the Am Civil War, made sure you were dead in case you were not. The fear of being buried alive was very real--given the uncertainty earlier science-- and thus a writer like A.E.Poe has a number of short stories involving live burial or entombment to excite his readers' emotions.
posted by Postroad at 1:51 AM on November 1, 2008


Meet Angel Hays.

Of course, you could just take your mobile.


For completely fucked up, you need to go to Papua New Guinea.
posted by mandal at 2:41 AM on November 1, 2008


This gives new meaning to " ...must be rolling in his grave."
posted by Gyan at 2:42 AM on November 1, 2008


My Mom who feared no man nor God was pretty worried about this and made us all promise we would make sure she was dead before we buried her. When she finally passed, I wanted to honor her request, but her doctor and mortician both thought I was a little strange when I kept asking "..are you sure?"

An even greater fear for her - and one that may be the modern-day equivalent of this buried alive fear is anesthesia awareness - waking up while under the surgeon's knife but being paralyzed from speaking or moving to indicate that you are awake and in excruciating pain or to stop them. I confess that she passed a bit of that fear on to me. I don't spend a lot of time worrying about it, but it would certainly cross my mind if I were scheduled for surgery!
posted by madamjujujive at 3:12 AM on November 1, 2008


See Florence Wyndham.
posted by Skeptic at 3:34 AM on November 1, 2008


madamjujujive:

I remember reading some paper on the use of curare as anesthesia while performing surgery in small children. The only thing the surgeon really needs is for the patient to remain as still as possible and not die. Turns out curare only causes paralysis, you can feel everything that is happening to you.

I also have a friend who is an anesthesiologist. He was telling me that a lot of the medications they use are more amnesiacs than anesthetics. That way, even if you had anesthesia awareness, you will not remember. He, and many of his colleagues, are not really sure, nor want to really think about it, how aware patients are during surgery.
posted by dirty lies at 4:01 AM on November 1, 2008


This is why I want to be cremated.
posted by signal at 6:51 AM on November 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Live burial may not have been so uncommon in the near past. A friend of mine's great-grandmother sat up during her open casket wake.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:24 AM on November 1, 2008


Embalming was invented to prevent such episodes from embarrassing the undertakers.
posted by spock at 9:29 AM on November 1, 2008


There was a great chapter in The Great Train Robbery where he detailed these fears amongst the Victorian people, and of course the thieves work it into their heist plan.
posted by mannequito at 9:44 AM on November 1, 2008


I heard somewhere that parts of the vampire myth came from someplace where they had a problem with a lot of people being buried alive, possibly as the aftermath of a plague.

The undertakers decided to rephrase the question "How can me make sure the ones we bury aren't alive?" into "How can we make sure the ones we bury are dead?" So they equipped all their coffin lids with a large wooden stake, which would then pierce the heart of anyone placed in those coffins. Thus making sure any occupant would be definitely, absolutely dead.
posted by ymgve at 7:48 PM on November 1, 2008


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