For many individuals in history, the fear of death often coincided with their fear of being buried alive. Modern day technology and medical expertise has contributed significantly towards pathological examinations. However, before better improved medical methods were improvised, there was often much difficulty in proper diagnosis. With such naivety came an associated fear of being buried alive. As unlikely as it might appear, there were cases in history of people being buried alive.
In his book entitled, Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear, Jan Bondeson has examined certain measures that were taken in antiquity to resolve this threat and certain, notable cases of individuals being buried alive.
In 1822, a 40-year-old German shoemaker was laid to rest, but there were questions about his death from the start. Although the shoemaker’s family confirmed his passing—he looked dead, they said—no one could detect any stench or rigidity in the cadaver. Still, the funeral went on as planned. But as the gravedigger was dispersing the last shovelsful of dirt onto the grave, he heard a knocking from below.
Reversing his process and now removing the earth as quickly as possible, the gravedigger found the shoemaker moving inside his coffin. His arms were drawn upward, he wasn’t cold, and when an attending physician opened a vein, blood flowed all over the shroud. Over the course of three days, resuscitation attempts were made, but all efforts were fruitless. The shoemaker was declared dead once more and laid to rest for a second and final time.
In 1915, a 30-year-old South Carolinian named Essie Dunbar suffered a fatal attack of epilepsy—or so everyone thought. After declaring her dead, doctors placed Dunbar’s body in a coffin and scheduled her funeral for the next day so that her sister, who lived out of town, would still be able to pay respects. But Dunbar's sister didn't travel fast enough; she arrived only to see the last clods of dirt thrown atop the grave. This didn’t sit well with Dunbar’s sister, who wanted to see Essie one last time. She ordered that the body be removed. When the coffin lid was opened, Essie sat up and smiled at all around her. She lived for another 47 years.
In 1867, a 24 year-old French woman named Philomèle Jonetre contracted cholera. Not long after, she was presumed dead. As was custom, a priest arrived to administer the last sacraments, and Jonetre’s body was placed in a coffin. Only 16 hours later, her body was lowered six feet underground.
Like the Shoemaker’s case, a gravedigger heard Jonetre knocking against her coffin lid and promptly removed her from the earth. From the work of P. Brouardel, it appeared that no breath was apparent when a lit candle was placed under her nose, distinct rhythmical sounds could be heard in her chest, and she exhibited some muscle contraction and eyelid twitching. This didn’t last long, however; Jonetre was officially pronounced dead the following day and was buried a second time.
The case of 19-year-old Frenchman Angelo Hays is particularly interesting, dubbed by Bondeson as “probably the most remarkable twentieth-century instance of alleged premature burial.” In 1937, Hays wrecked his motorcycle, with the impact throwing the young man from his machine headfirst into a brick wall. Hays' face was so disfigured that his parents weren’t allowed to view the body. After locating no pulse, the doctors declared Hays dead, and three days later, he was buried. But because of an investigation helmed by a local insurance company, his body was exhumed two days after the funeral.
Much to those at the forensic institute’s surprise, Hays was still warm. He had been in a deep coma and his body’s diminished need for oxygen had kept him alive. After numerous surgeries and some rehabilitation, Hays recovered completely. In fact, he became a French celebrity: People travelled from afar to speak with him, and in the 1970s he went on tour with a security coffin he invented featuring thick upholstery, a food locker, toilet, and even a library.
These cases make for very interesting reading and are certainly curious examples of the human fascination of life after death, whether premature or not!
J. Bondeson, Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear. Copyright © 2002 J. Bondeson.
P. Brouardel, Death and Sudden Death http://archive.org/stream/deathsuddendeath00brouuoft/deathsuddendeath00brouuoft_djvu.txt. Copyright © 1902 P. Brouardel.
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