When The Dead Come Calling

Twas on a cold and stormy night, as the clock struck midnight and the wind did moan, that I was chilled through to my very core. But, though you may presume this chill to be due to the weather, you would be, ‘tis said, only half right. For, the real reason that the cold hand of fear had hold of my heart, as I stood in a desolate churchyard – its graves uneven; its ground pitted and broken – was the tale that was being woven by my guide.

For, dear reader, not only did that tale make me shudder at its everyday reality, but it brought to life, for me, that very vivid nightmare; that very thing I fear the most – being buried alive.

Now, we’ve talked about the reality of this in Haitian culture in ‘Zombie Slave….Myth or Reality?’, but to hear of it in this country, as part of everyday life so very long ago, with no voodoo involvement, well, it gave me cause to let my fear take over – for just a little while, that is.

And so the tale was told, that during the cholera epidemics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was quite common for people to be buried prematurely. The sheer numbers of people dead and dying probably led to physicians being overstretched and, in all honesty, not being able to conduct as thorough an examination as they should have done. This, coupled with the fear of the spread of the disease, meant that people were buried more quickly.

How it was discovered that premature burial was actually taking place is not known, but there are many accounts of bodies being found, on exhumation, face down in their coffins; of scratch marks on the inside of the lid; and, in one case – John Duns Scotus – of being found outside his coffin with his hands torn and bloody, after trying to escape.

The fear of being buried alive was all consuming and was exacerbated by doctors’ reports and accounts in literature and in newspapers. In 1844, Edgar Allan Poe wrote ‘The Premature Burial’, which contained accounts of supposedly true cases, as well as the narrator’s own (perceived) burial, whilst still alive.

Whilst a horrifying thought for people at this time, there were, as is always the case, beneficiaries to this mass hysteria – the coffin makers – who took full advantage of this public fear and cashed in on it.

From fear was borne invention and these inventions took the form, either of safety devices fitted to ordinary coffins, or safety coffins themselves.

In the former case, devices were attached to enable the ‘deceased’ to communicate with the outside world. An example of this are cords running from various parts of the deceased’s body, up a tube and attaching to a bell above ground. This bell soon became covered, after several false alarms where insects and rainwater had activated the bell. Little did people at this time realise, but the body shifts as it decomposes and, more often than not, it was this shift that triggered the bell, resulting in many false alarms and inappropriate exhumations.

But, what about the genuine cases? Is it really feasible to believe that there would be someone about in the cemetery, twenty four hours a day, on the off chance that a bell may tinkle? Well, these were the days when night watchmen patrolled and, in theory, they would hear the bell and would go to the grave, insert a tube into the coffin and, using a bellows, pump air in, enabling the person to breathe until the casket could be exhumed.

That’s all well and good, if the bell rings at night. But, what about the daytime? And, more importantly, what if the night watchman didn’t actually hear the bell? Granted, it is quieter at night and sound carries more clearly, but how big is the cemetery? How does he work out where the tinkling is coming from, as silence can disorientate? And, what if there isn’t silence? What if the cemetery is close to a noisy part of town or there is a storm or another disturbance? What then? For, the designers at this time initially forgot to include one vital piece of equipment in their safety package – that of a breathing tube. Of course, this oversight was later corrected, but at what cost?

PG Pessler, a German priest, in 1798, suggested that the cords should be attached to the church bells. Although a highly impractical idea, you could see where he was going with this. At least it would be heard, for whom the bells tolled.

Then there were the safety coffins. These contraptions included ladders, an escape hatch and even a feeding tube. How anyone would know you were alive to feed you, though, is anyone’s guess. Yet, still, with all these ideas, a simple way of allowing air into the coffin to allow the occupant to breathe, was frequently overlooked.

Germany, in the 1820s, saw the use of the ‘portable death chamber’, which incorporated a bell for signalling life and a window for viewing the body. This chamber was constructed over the grave and enabled the night watchman to view the body for signs of life or decomposition. If the bell was rung and the night watchman observed life, then the body would be removed. If, on the other hand, the body was decomposing nicely, then a trapdoor would be opened to allow the body to drop into the grave. A panel was then slid over the grave and the chamber reused.

Even as recently as 1995, safety coffins were still being designed. Fabrizio Caselli patented one to include an emergency alarm, intercom system, torch, breathing apparatus (he remembered!!) and a heart monitor and stimulator.

Despite the pervasiveness of this fear, there were no documented cases of anyone being saved by a safety coffin. Is this an indication that they didn’t do what it said on the tin; that no one heard the bells tinkling; that the escapes routes didn’t work; or that they suffocated due to the oversight of breathing tubes? Or, is it simply that no one was ever actually buried alive?

I know which one you would probably prefer it to be, dear reader, but the answer is more likely to be the former. I have no doubt that people were buried alive. My doubts lie in the success of all these contraptions to detect said life and to rescue the poor soul. For, as I say time and time again, these stories must come from somewhere. Just imagine…..

You wake; coughing; something causing your breathing to be laboured; something causing you to wheeze. Strange, you think, for you don’t suffer from asthma or hay fever and your room is always well ventilated.

You open your eyes, but see nothing. It is dark; pitch dark. You turn your head towards the window; towards that crack of lightness that always shows around the edges of the window, no matter how hard you’ve tried to block it out. There is no break in the darkness. It is whole; it is all encompassing; it is closing in.

Synapses start firing in your brain and you feel changes in your body. Your heart starts to beat faster; your breathing becomes quicker; and a sheen of sweat breaks out across your skin.

You listen, trying to pick up the drone of traffic that is your usual nocturnal lullaby, but there is only silence. You strain your ears to listen harder, but all you end up doing is triggering that annoying ringing sound that happens when things are way too quiet.

A knot starts to form in the pit of your stomach and your mouth has gone dry. You sit up abruptly to try and orientate yourself, but only succeed in smashing your head on something hard, sending you straight back down again.

Adrenalin is pumping now and you can hear your blood thundering in your ears, as your body starts to react to your predicament – already well aware of what is happening, while your mind is still processing it.

You reach your hand above your head and feel a hard surface less than a foot above you. You reach out sideways, connecting with the same hard surface. You reach behind you; you kick your legs up; you shuffle down as far as you can go, but find nothing but walls.

It is then that your mind catches up with your body; it is then that you realise that you are in an enclosed space; it is then that all sense leaves you as you allow yourself to be overtaken by emotion, by panic. You scream; you thump; you kick; you claw; you throw yourself against the sides of your tomb; you try and get leverage to use your weight to break your binds.

Why? Deep down, you know your worst nightmare has come true. So, why do it? Because you can’t help it. Your body is wired to send you into fight or flight mode when it feels threatened. You have nowhere to run, so your body dictates that you should fight. But fight against what? An enemy that cannot be beaten?

After a while, when your limbs are bloody and sore; when your voice is hoarse; when your brain and your body realise that there is no point anymore, you lapse into silence. This is not a fight you are going to win; there is no way out of this. Your air supply has been severely depleted; your brain cannot comprehend what is happening; your heart starts to feel constricted; and you can’t get your breath.

You slip into a daze – shock – for you know that no one will find you. No one knows where you are. You don’t know where you are. You are trapped. You are helpless. You are suffocating. You are alone.

It is said by many that the terms ‘saved by the bell’, ‘dead ringer’ and ‘graveyard shift’, all stem from the history of the safety coffin, but none of it has been proved. Instead, these beliefs have been dispelled as urban myths.

Myths or not, though, the terms do represent the fear of an era; a fear that I have no doubt, plays on the minds of many people, especially in an age of organ donation; when harvesting needs to occur within a finite timeline after death.

If being buried alive doesn’t fill you with trepidation, then I’m sure that having your organs removed, from your still living body, will.

May fear protect you when the darkness comes.

Til next time.