Is the story dead or alive?

"Buried alive" The fear of apparent death

The fear of being buried alive preoccupied people in the 18th and 19th centuries enormously. On the one hand, stories and reports fuel the fear of apparent death. They are stories about people who are found dead, regain consciousness in their graves or tombs and die miserably.

But there are also stories about those who happened to be rescued, such as the Ingolstadt man who wakes up to the sound of trumpets in the coffin, or the rich lady who wants a grave robber to cut a valuable ring from her finger and she wakes up in the process. This story is known from 19 German cities, but also from London.

The subject of apparent death concerns scholars of all kinds, medical professionals such as Wilhelm Christoph Hufeland from Weimar or philosophers such as the Munich writer Karl von Eckartshausen: What characterizes life, what characterizes death? Questions that were particularly urgent in times of war or pestilence - whenever a large number of people suddenly died and had to be buried: Then a quick decision had to be made about who was going to the cemetery - or not yet.

Wandering bones, growing hair, births in coffins

Graves were not dug very deep at that time. It could happen, for example, that body parts or bones were washed to the surface of the earth after heavy rain. This led to stories about the apparently walking dead. Ignorance increased people's fear. Ignorance of chemical processes that take place in the body after death, such as the putrefaction process in which gases inflate the body, or the continued growth of hair, fingernails and toenails after death. Finds of fetuses or infants in graves of women sparked the imagination of the people. So-called coffin births in the coffins of dead women, whose decomposition process caused contractions of the uterus through gases in the abdomen and thus expelled the unborn child: all of this was unknown to the general public, spread through stories and fueled fear.

"True stories" that are scary

One source for reports on false deaths is the collection of reports of the French doctor Jean-Jacques Bruhier. Published in 1745, it is translated into numerous other languages. In Germany, for example, Karl von Eckartshausen published "Stories and incidents of people buried alive" in 1798. The Munich court councilor describes 25 cases of alleged death in crypts and coffins. It tells the story of an unnamed monastery vault in which dead monks lay for four days until they were buried. After the monastery was sold, the following inscription was found on a wall in the former "death vault":

Domine, miserere mei! A Vivendibus derelictus, in manos tuas commendo spiritum. Fracto sunt vires meae, clmans non audior, fame morior. Veh mihi morienti! 1735. - (Lord have mercy on me! Forsaken by the living, I recommend my spirit to your hands. My powers are gone. One cannot hear those who call. I am dying of hunger. Creators answer me! It is already the third day. Woe to me who is dying! 1735)

The collection also contains stories of "dead" rescued. Among them is that of a man from Ingolstadt who jumped out of it shortly before the coffin was to be lowered into the ground. According to Eckartshausen, he is said to have reported the following:

I gradually lost my strength. I was not able to move any limb. The tongue failed me. My eyes saw, my ears heard, I felt, I was aware of myself. I suffered inexpressible pain when my lower jaw was pressed against the upper one. (...) I had to let myself be locked in the coffin and watch the terrible death come closer and closer. But thanks be to the men with trumpets. The penetrating sound of this instrument shook my whole being. Suddenly it fell from me like a heavy load and I was able to move. (...)

Ingolstadt seemingly dead

How to make sure the dead person was dead

Breathing was a sure sign of life or death. One tried to prove this: with a mirror, a candle or a feather under the nose, or a bowl of water that was placed on the chest. Painful stimuli were also used, such as driving needles under a toenail, playing the trumpet in the ear, holding smelling salts under the nose, tickling the throat, applying burning sealing wax, testing the skin with a hot iron or accupuncting the heart. In Austria-Hungary, until the beginning of the 20th century, a doctor even pushed a dagger into the heart or opened the wrists to ensure that no one was buried as a pseudo-dead.

No burial before putrefaction

The medical approach turns out to be groundbreaking: looking at motionless people as seemingly dead until there are visible signs of death that are generally recognized as such, such as corpse rot. For this purpose, morgues were set up in which the dead rested under constant supervision, connected to "rescue equipment", until their burial. The first morgue was built in Weimar in 1792.

MDR TH√úRINGEN - The radio | 03.10.2020 | 6:37 pm