In a Box
George Washington’s last words to his physician were ‘do not let my body be put into the vault in less than two days after I am dead.’ That wouldn’t have been enough for Schopenhauer, who made his undertakers wait five days, or for Gogol, who didn’t want to be buried until he started putrefying. Chopin was dissected at his own request, as was King Leopold I of Belgium. Hans Christian Andersen, convinced that foreign doctors were all charlatans, carried a card when he went abroad that said ‘I am not really dead.’ In the same will in which he established the Nobel prizes, Alfred Nobel also required that his arteries be opened after his death, just in case. Harriet Martineau bequeathed ten guineas to the doctor willing to decapitate her; for others, the amputation of fingers or toes would do.
Vol. 35 No. 3 · 7 February 2013
Premature burial, which Deborah Friedell writes about, used to be a real-life worry for me when I worked as a forensic investigator (LRB, 3 January). In 1978 I took a job as an investigator for a medical examiner in the US. I would be called to the scene of a death to pronounce the person dead and investigate the circumstances. It’s not as easy as you might think, especially in a wreck off the highway at night with just a small flashlight. A stethoscope is of little use. If you can get to the carotid and femoral arteries, observe the abdomen and chest and tap on the cornea, you’re good to go after three or four minutes. I’m not looking to see if they’re alive: I’m making sure they’re dead. That’s a big difference. I know of two cases where a person was pronounced dead and was later found alive. In the first case, my partner and I happened to be in the emergency room when the deceased came in; death had been pronounced twenty minutes earlier, but my partner took a look and saw that the person was still alive. In neither case did the patient ever regain consciousness: they died again about a day later of the diseases of old age that caused their first deaths.
Among other measures employed in the past to ascertain death, Deborah Friedell includes ‘enemas of tobacco smoke’. Can this kindly practice be the origin of the mystifying (to me) phrase used by contemporary North Americans for flattery, ‘blowing smoke up your ass’?