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Concerning Premature Burial

"It is true that hardly any one sign of death, short of putrefecation, can be relied upon as infallible." - British Medical Journal, October 31, 1885, p. 841.

Selections from Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented (1905):

Commenting on actual cases of premature burial, the Lancet, March 17, 1886, p. 295, says:-
"Truly there is something about the very notion of such a fate calculated to make one shudder, and to send a cold stream down one's spine. By such a catastrophe is not meant the sudden avalanche of earth, bricks, or stone upon the luckless miner or excavator, or the crushing, suffocative death from tumbling ruins. No; it is the cool, determined treatment of a living being as if he were dead - the rolling him in his winding sheet, the screwing him down in his coffin, the weeping at his funeral, and the final lowering of him into the narrow grave, and piling upon his dark and box-like dungeon loads of his mother earth. The last footfall departs from the solitary churchyard, leaving the entranced sleeper behind in his hideous shell, soon to awaken to a consciousness and to a benumbed half-suffocated existence for a few minutes; or else, more horrible still, there he lies beneath the ground conscious of what has been and still is, until, by some fearful agonised struggle of the inner man at the weird phantasmagoria which has passed across his mental vision, he awakes to a body vivification as desperate in its torment for a brief period as has been that of his physical activity. But it is soon past. There is scarcely room to turn over in the wooden chamber; and what can avail a few shrieks and struggles of a half-stifled, cramped-up man!"

"A solicitor, living in Gloucester, recently informed the editor that, when first in practice, he had as caretaker of his offices an old woman who, with her husband, had been in charge of the cholera wards, erected just outside the city, at the the time of the severe epidemic of 1849, when, in Gloucester alone, there were 119 fatal cases. She told him that as soon as the patients were dead they put them in shells and screwed them down, so as to get them out of the way as quickly as possible, as the small sheds (which are still standing) were so crowded. 'Sometimes,' she callously remarked, 'they come to afterwards, and we did hear 'em kicking in their coffins, but we never unscrewed 'em 'cause we knew they'd got to die!"

The Sunday Times, London, December 30, 1838, contains the following:-
"A frightful case of premature interment occurred not long since, at Tonneins, in the Lower Garonne. The victim, a man in the prime of life, had only a few shovelfuls of earth thrown onto his grave, when an indistinct noise was heard to proceed from his coffin. The grave-digger, terrified beyond description, instantly fled to seek assistance, and some time elapsed before his return, when the crowd, which had by this time collected in considerable numbers round the grave, insisted on the coffin being opened. As soon as the first boards had been removed, it was ascertained, beyond a doubt, that the occupant had been buried alive. His countenance was frightfully contracted in the agony he had undergone; and, in his struggles, the unhappy man had forced his arms completely out of the winding sheet, in which they had been securely enveloped. A physician, who was on the spot, opened a vein, but no blood flowed. The sufferer was beyond the reach of art."

The Lancet, May 22, 1858, p. 519, has the following:-
"A case of restoration of consciousness after burial is recorded by the Austrian journals in the person of a rich manufacturer, named Oppelt, at Rudenberg. He was buried fifteen years ago, and lately, on opening the vault, the lid of the coffin was found forced open, and his skeleton in a sitting position in a corner of the vault. A Government Commission has reported on the matter."

The Undertakers' and Funeral Directors' Joural, July 22, 1890.
"A horrible story comes from Majola, Mantua. The body of a woman, named Lavrinia Merli, a peasant, who was supposed to have died from hysterics, was placed in a vault on Thursday, July 3. On Saturday evening it was found that the woman had regained consciousness, torn her grave-clothes in her struggles, and turned completely over in the coffin, and had given birth to a seven-months'-old child. Both mother and child were dead when the coffin was opened for the last time previous to interment."

From Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented by William Tebb and Edward Perry Vollum, Swan Sonnenschein & Co, London (1905).

As to the statement found in medical books that there are frequent cases of inhumation while the subjects are but in a cataleptic state and the persistent denials of specialists that such things happen, except very rarely, we have but to turn to the daily press of every country to find the horrid fact substantiated. The Rev. H. R. haweis, M. A., author of Ashes to Ashes, enumerates in his work, written in advicacy of cremation, some very distressing cases of premature burial. On page fort six occurs the following dialogue:

"But do you know of many cases of premature burial?"

"Undoubtedly I do. I will not say that in our temperate climate they are frequent, but they do occur. Hardly a graveyard is opened but coffins are found containing bodies not only turned, but skeletons contorted in the last hopeless struggle for life underground. The turning may be due to some clumsy shaking of the coffin, but not the contortion."

After this he proceeds to give the following recent cases:

"At Bergerac (Dordogne), in 1842, the patient took a sleeping draught... but he woke not.... They bled him, and he woke not.... At last they declared him to be dead, and buried him. After a few days remembering the sleeping draught, they opened the grave. The body had turned and struggled."

"The Sunday Times, December 30, 1838, relates that at Tonneins, Lower Garonne, a man was buried, when an indistinct noise proceeded from the coffin; the reckless grave-digger fled.... The coffin was hauled up and burst open. A face stiffened in terror and despair, a torn winding-sheet, contorted limbs, told the sad truth - too late."

"The Times, May, 1974, states that in August of 1873, a young lady died soon after her marriage.... Within a year the husband married again, and the mother of his first bride resolved to remove her daughter's body to Marseilles. They opened the vault and found the poor girl's body prostrate, her hair dischevelled, her shroud torn to pieces."

From Isis Unveiled by H. P. Blavatsky, 1877.

'On the Danger of Early Burials' was published in 1910 by the Theosophic society:

Le Clerc, in his History of Medicine, and also other able physicians, affirm, that in Hysteria, a woman can live thirty days without respiration. I know, says Calvert, that a very honest woman continued thirty-six hours without any sign of life. Every one throught her dead, and her funeral was prepared; her husband, steadily opposed it. At the expiration of thirty-six hours she recovered, and lived a long time afterwards. She related, that she had heard perfectly all that was said of her, and knew that they wished to bury her, but such was her torpor, that she could not overcome it, and would have suffered all without resistance; which accords with what St. Augustin says of a priest, who, during a syncope, heard what was said, as if at a distance, and yet allowed his flesh to be burned and cut without opposition or sensation.

Le Bruyn, in his travels, states that he saw at Damietta, in Egypt, a Turk, who was called the dead child (l'enfant mort) because his mother being pregnant with him, fell sick, and being thought dead, she was speedily buried, after the custom of the country; where little time intervenes between death and interment, especially during the plague. She was put into a vault, which the Turk had for the burial place of his family.

In the evening some hours after her interment, her husband imagined that the child she bore, might still be living; he therefore caused the vault to be opened, and found his wife delivered; the child being alive, but the mother was dead. Some asserted that the child was heard to cry, and that it was this information which led the father to open the vault.

This surnamed the dead child, was alive in 1677.

Many other instances might be adduced of persons buried alive, and of others recovering as they were carried to the grave, or who have been taken from their graves fortuitously. The work of Winslow, already cited, and other writers, may be consulted in proof. A wise and judicious deduction is drawn by the writers from these facts, visz.: that we ought not to bury people until well assured of their death, especially during the plague, and in certain diseases, which induce a sudden cessation of motion and feeling.

It is only so lately as 1803, that the following advertisement appeared in a London newspaper: "A fine white child's Caul to be sold. It is more likely to be lucky, as it is the third child of a third child." The Caul, (alias the membranes, in childbirth, happily in part remaining adherent to the head of the child) has long been highly esteemed. Sailors consider those exempt from drowning, who had one of them in their pocket, and frequently purchased them at a very extravagent price.

From The Theosophic Messenger, volume 12, October 1910.

The first book referenced was brought to our attention by one of the best morbid sites on the Internet, the wonderful Morbid Fact Du Jour! originally at (around 1999), since moved to the Asylum Eclectica.

This fine site still exists (as of 2009), and I strongly recommend bookmarking it.

The latter two articles are both related to the Theosophical society, which produced many worthwhile articles on the supernatural and near-supernatural. The society continues such studies to this day.