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Preventing Premature Burial



Burial of the living has always been frowned upon, and especially so in Victorian times. With their limited technology, proving that someone was still alive was problematic at best - especially since the standard practice of embalming was still decades away. Well known is their marketing of grave bells with cords extending into the coffin. Other inventive and less widely known methods of verifying death-ness have been documented.



Publishing his procedure in 1841, Christian Friedrich Nasse described the use of the Thanatometer, a long thermometer what was inserted into the stomach, intended to measure the core body temperature during a period of observation.

The German inventor Middeldorph created the heart flag, a device which incorporated a needle that was thrust directly into the heart. This provided direct reporting by triggering a tiny flag to be flipped up in the event of heart activity.

Amid the galvanic research craze, Christian August Struwe developed the Lebenspruefer in 1805. This was an electrical device designed to deliver electric shocks simultaneously to the eye and the lip of the corpse. The subject would be observed for any twitching, which would indicate a hint of life.

The 'tobacco enema involved blowing smoke into the posterior apeture of the corpse. This procedure was believed to be generally beneficial and was frequently used to revive the recently dead or drowned. They were also administered to the living into the nineteenth century, and especially popular in Holland, where enthusiasm for smoking continues today. Initially done by blowing smoke through a tube (by mouth), the procedure was later improved to incorporate a bellows, famously called an 'anal tobacco furnace' (Anton Louis and P. J. B. Previnaire) and Der Doppelblaster in Brussels.

Leon Collongues developed a practice of 'listening' for capillary bloodflow in the fingers of corpses by placing the digits directly into his own ears.

Barnett recommended a scalding death cure for his subjects in England, which included burning the skin of the arm to indicate life (blisters form) or lack of life (no blisters form).

The pince-mamelon device, described as 'forceps with claws,' was created by Jules Antoine Josat to pinch the suspected corpse's nipples under the assumption that such an act would revive anyone but the dead. Later research concluded that this response was not always guaranateed, especially in some cases of mental infirmity (Briquet).

The widely respected physician Dr. J. V. Laborde encouraged strenuous tongue pulling to revive subjects. He even had an employee in his mortuary responsible for pulling the tongues of bodies as late as the 1890s.



From Buried Alive, The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear by Jan Bondeson, 2001.


These methods are all more invasive and personal than the popular Victorian practice of running a metal tube into the grave, and stringing a cord from the corpse to a bell on the surface. It is hard to imagine how genuinely creepy it would be to walk past a churchyard and hearing a weakly ringing bell in the dead of night.

Even in the early twentieth century, Nels Quelvi recommended placing the newly dead into a charnel house for three days at a minimum of 85 degrees to verify the onset of putrefication (What Should be Done with the Bodies of the Dead, published in 1936).