In a Box

Deborah Friedell

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.

Premature Burial: How It May Be Prevented, first published in 1896 and now reissued by Hesperus Press (£9.99), is a catalogue of those unfortunates who didn’t plan so well ahead. ‘The thought of suffocation in a coffin is more terrible than that of torture on the rack, or burning at the stake’ – and all too common, according to the book’s authors, William Tebb and Edward Perry Vollum. A diabetic coma, a trance or catalepsy might make one’s breathing imperceptible; ‘it may even be impossible to see any cloud on a clear mirror.’ Stethoscopes – often made of wood, and hardly sensitive – could miss a heartbeat. And so physicians would stick patients with pins or employ galvanism, nipple pincers or an enema of tobacco smoke (particularly popular in Holland). To Tebb and Vollum, medicine seemed hardly to have advanced since the days when the Roman consul Acilius Aviola and the praetor Lucius Lamia came ‘to life again when on the funeral pile’, too late to escape the flames, according to Pliny’s Natural History. ‘Such is the condition of humanity, and so uncertain is men’s judgment, that they cannot determine even death itself.’

Tebb was a Manchester radical who moved to Massachusetts to devote himself to the abolitionist cause. After the Civil War, he turned variously from the anti-vivisectionists to the anti-vaccinationists until he met Vollum, a doctor in the US army who as a child had been thought to have drowned; he’d come to in a mortuary, surrounded by corpses. What could be more glorious than to save mankind from the prison of the tomb? For Edgar Allan Poe, in ‘The Premature Burial’ (1844),

the unendurable oppression of the lungs – the stifling fumes from the damp earth – the clinging to the death garments – the rigid embrace of the narrow house – the blackness of the absolute Night – the silence like a sea that overwhelms – the unseen but palpable presence of the Conqueror Worm – these things, with the thoughts of the air and grass above, with memory of dear friends who would fly to save us if but informed of our fate, and with consciousness that of this fate they can never be informed – that our hopeless portion is that of the really dead – these considerations, I say, carry into the heart, which still palpitates, a degree of appalling and intolerable horror from which the most daring imagination must recoil. We know of nothing so agonising upon Earth – we can dream of nothing half so hideous in the realms of the nethermost Hell.

And so Tebb and Vollum collected newspaper accounts of overhasty physicians and greedy undertakers, though perhaps no one was to be feared so much as the French hotelier, with his ‘insensate fear of death and the injury which the possession of “a corpse”, dead or alive, may do to their business’. Poe had already told the story of Victorine Lafourcade, whose ‘condition so closely resembled death as to deceive every one who saw her’; she was rescued only because her lover had dug her up ‘with the romantic purpose of disinterring the corpse, and possessing himself of its luxuriant tresses’. To this Tebb and Vollum added more than two hundred other cases. The Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s mother, ‘subject to trance seizures’, was already half buried when the sexton filling the grave heard her screaming. Other of Tebb and Vollum’s great ladies were rescued by grave-robbers or (as in the Decameron) kindly necrophiliacs. Some were said to have been found dead in their coffins, but sitting erect, their fingers bloody from having scratched at the lids of their caskets. At least two were found to have given birth. Jews – who are supposed to bury their dead as soon as possible – seemed particularly at risk.

The book is a call for the use of ‘safety coffins’ – replete with air holes and breathing tubes, capable of being opened from the inside, packed with food and a hatchet, nicely padded – or, better, ‘waiting mortuaries’. There, for several days, a coffin would stay above ground, attached to an intricate system of ropes and bells that were supposed to alert attendants to any movement within. In Jan Bondeson’s comforting book on the subject, Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear (2001), Tebb and Vollum are shown to have got nearly everything wrong. Few of their great escapes can be substantiated. Cadavers found in unexpected positions had surely only shifted during burial; mutilated fingertips had probably just been fed on by rodents. The build-up of gases inside a dead body can expel an unborn child. Still, Bondeson, a rheumatologist, suggests that his readers would do well to avoid ‘drug overdoses while outdoors in cold weather’.