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Arts & Culture

I’m Not Dead Yet

January 6, 2016 | by

The nineteenth-century obsession with premature burial.

Antoine Wiertz, The Premature Burial, 1854.

I was eleven when the family cat died—we found her on the cold concrete floor of the garage—but once we’d buried her in the backyard and erected a modest wooden cross, it occurred to me that she might not be dead. Sure, I had seen her dead, had held her dead body, but what if we’d been premature, what if she were only sleeping very, very stilly? The thought haunted me: I had a few nightmares where her little calico paw came jutting up through the ground, as in the archetypal images of zombie uprising. I went so far as to visit the grave with a trowel in hand, but the ground was soft and spongy, the soil still unsettled, and I got the creeps. I convinced myself the cat was extremely, entirely deceased.

Maybe I should’ve been more diligent. There was a big story a year ago about Bart, a bona fide zombie cat from Tampa Bay, who “clawed his way out of the grave” after five days underground. You’ll find that vivid, morbid phrase in almost all the coverage: “clawed his way out of the grave.” I missed all this in 2015, but it’s been brought to life again by the black magic of the news cycle: this is the first anniversary of Bart’s resurrection. “ZOMBIE CAT WHO CLAWED HIMSELF OUT OF GRAVE AFTER BEING KNOCKED DOWN BY CAR IS UNRECOGNIZABLE A YEAR ON,” read one headline this week, indicating Bart’s revivified fluffiness. “ ‘ZOMBIE CAT’ NOW AT THE CENTER OF CUSTODY BATTLE,” said another. 

I’m proud of Bart, and I laud his apparently indefatigable will to live, but it’s clear that his popularity among humans stems from jealousy. We could never hope to claw our way out of the grave. There’s our fundamental clawlessness, for one—and even if we could transcend that, it’s our bad luck to have adopted burial rites that favor elaborate coffins and grave depths of six feet or more. We want to stay down.

This has caused some trouble, historically. As readers of Poe know, in the nineteenth century, premature burial was a going concern. Short of waiting for decay to set in, the medical community had few means of certifying death, and the burgeoning press was quick to sensationalize any hasty pronouncements. Trawling the public domain not long ago, I was excited to come across William Tebb’s Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented, With Special Reference to Trance, Catalepsy, and Other Forms of Suspended Animation, published in 1896, the same year its author cofounded the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial. Owing to “a distressing experience” in his family, Tebb dedicated himself to stamping out the scourge of premature burial and other “death-counterfeits”; “the danger,” he wrote, “is very real.” By his estimate, in England and Wales alone some twenty-seven hundred people were annually “consigned to a living death.” A stern epigraph from Professor Alexander Wilder drives this point home: “The thought of suffocation in a coffin is more terrible than that of torture on the rack, or burning at the stake … When we neglect precautions against a fate so terrible, our tears are little less than hypocrisy and our mourning is a mockery.”

Premature Burial runs to more than five hundred pages, and its most gripping sections are given over to accounts of interment gone awry, along with the many anxieties of the nineteenth-century deathbed. There’s the man who sank into such a prolonged lethargy that he was thought dead until he “broke into a profuse sweat” in his coffin; the young woman whose corpse was exhumed for reburial only to be discovered “in the middle of the vault, with disheveled hair and the linen torn to pieces … gnawed in her agony”; the man whose fear of premature burial was so severe that he instructed his family to leave his body undisturbed for ten days after death, “with the face uncovered, and watched night and day. Bells were to be fastened to his feet. And at the end of the second day veins were to be opened in the arm and leg.”

Tebb draws some of his most abject cases, fittingly enough, from The Undertakers’ and Funeral Directors’ Journal, a veritable storehouse of medical malfeasance. The Journal ran at least one story of a pregnant woman who gave birth in the grave. It also has an episode with one of the only happy endings in the whole book:

“Mrs. Lockhart, of Birkhill, who died in 1825, used to relate to her grandchildren the following anecdote of her ancestor, Sir William Lindsay, of Covington, towards the close of the seventeenth century:—‘Sir William was a humorist and noted, moreover, for preserving the picturesque appendage of a beard at a period when the fashion had long passed away. He had been extremely ill, and life was at last supposed to be extinct, though, as it afterwards turned out, he was merely in a “dead faint” or trance. The female relatives were assembled for the “chesting”—the act of putting a corpse into a coffin, with the entertainment given on such melancholy occasions—in a lighted chamber in the old tower of Covington, where the “bearded knight” lay stretched upon his bier. But when the servants were about to enter to assist at the ceremonies, Isabella Somerville, Sir William’s great-granddaughter, and Mrs. Lockhart’s grandmother, then a child, creeping close to her mother, whispered into her ear, “The beard is wagging! the beard is wagging!” Mrs. Somerville, upon this, looked to the bier, and observing indications of life in the ancient knight, made the company retire, and Sir William soon came out of his faint. Hot bottles were applied and cordials administered, and in the course of the evening he was able to converse with his family. They explained that they had believed him to be actually dead, and that arrangements had even been made for his funeral. In answer to the question, “Have the folks been warned?” (i.e., invited to the funeral) he was told that they had—that the funeral day had been fixed, an ox slain, and other preparations made for entertaining the company. Sir William then said, “All is as it should be; keep it a dead secret that I am in life, and let the folks come.” His wishes were complied with, and the company assembled for the burial at the appointed time. After some delay, occasioned by the non-arrival of the clergyman, as was supposed, and which afforded an opportunity of discussing the merits of the deceased, the door suddenly opened, when, to their surprise and terror, in stepped the knight himself, pale in countenance and dressed in black, leaning on the arm of the minister of the parish of Covington. Having quieted their alarm and explained matters, he called upon the clergyman to conduct an act of devotion, which included thanksgiving for his recovery and escape from being buried alive. This done, the dinner succeeded. A jolly evening, after the manner of the time, was passed, Sir William himself presiding over the carousals.’”

Most, of course, were not so fortunate as Sir William. Read enough of these accounts and a pattern begins to emerge, a grammar of early interment: the rent garments, the skeletons in panicked poses, the scratch marks on coffin lids, the distant sounds of knocking from new graves. You get the sense that people were exhumed more back then, and that the cemetery offered surprises as often as it did solemnity. It strikes me that in the hundred-plus years since Tebb’s cri de coeur, our fear of premature burial has become something more like a hope, as suggested in the viral sensation of Bart the zombie cat. We yearn to mistake death for something else. It doesn’t hold the same mystery it did a century ago. When it arrives, it’s with such biological certainty that to defy the grave seems more a miracle than a tragedy: score one against science, against the onslaught of empirical data. We’re probably, all of us, a little more afraid of dying now, a little less at home in the graveyards of the world. Having decided to keep our distance from death, we share more than ever an ingrained feeling that bodies should be in motion—even, or especially, when they’ve ceased to move.

The Eisenbrandt coffin was one of many “safety coffins” patented around this time, though it wasn’t the one Tebb endorsed.

In a later edition of his book housed at the Wellcome Library, Tebbs advocated for an invention that would, he thought, vastly reduce the incidence of premature burial. It was a coffin fitted with a long tube leading to the surface, where it terminated in an iron box. At the first sign of motion in the coffin, the box would spring open to admit air, light, and the promise of rescue: “a flag rises perpendicularly about four feet above the ground, and a bell is set ringing which continues for about half an hour. In front of the box, an electric lamp burns which gives light after sunset to the coffin below. The tube acts as a speaking tube, and the voice of the inmate of the coffin, however feeble is intensified.”

A variety of such safety coffins were coming under patent at the time, and many were, Tebb said, quite reasonably priced. But these were intended to serve only as the ultimate precaution. The only true way to prevent premature burial was to forestall the funeral until one was absolutely certain that one had a corpse on one’s hands. To this end he quoted Dr. Christopher Hufeland, “one of the greatest authorities on the subject,” who urged patience: he believed that a period of “eight days or a fortnight” could still prove too brief. (Just imagine the undertakers’ ads: “We’ll wait as long as it takes to guarantee the solitude of your beloved.”) Hufeland’s testimony is maybe the most evocative and disturbing in the book. He deserves the final word on the subject.

I always advise a delay of the funeral as long as possible, so as to make all certain as to death. No wonder when those who are buried alive, and who undergo indescribable torture, condemn those who have been dearest to them in life. They will have to undergo slow suffocation, in furious despair, while scratching their flesh to pieces, biting their tongues, and smashing their heads against their narrow houses that confine them, and calling to their best friends, and cursing them as murderers.

For a more contemporary gloss on the subject, try Jan Bondeson’s Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear, from 2001.

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.