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Buried Alive by J. G. Millingen, M.D., M.A. 1839
Every nation, however uncivilized, holds the idea of being buried alive in constant dread; the horrors of such a situation cannot be described. Bodies have been found where the miserable victims of precipitation had actually devoured the flesh of their arms in the agonies of hunger and despair. Such was the fate of John Scott and the Emperor Zeno. It is to be feared that this melancholy occurrence is more frequent than is supposed, more especially in countries where inhumation is speedily resorted to. The ancients were remarkably cautious in this respect, especially when we take into consideration the climate of Greece and Rome during the summer months. A law of Greece on this subject directs that “the corpse should be laid out at the relations’ pleasure, but that the following morning before daylight the funeral procession should take place.” From various authorities, however, it appears that the bodies were kept three, and sometimes six days. Servius was of opinion that the time for burning bodies was the eighth day, and the time for burying the tenth; it appears, however, that this was a privilege granted to the wealthy, as the poor were consumed the day after their death, a custom alluded to in an epigram of Callimachus. Among the Romans several days were also allowed to elapse before interment—sometimes seven days; during which, loud cries, in which the deceased was called by his name, and the noise of various instruments resounded near the body; this was called the conclamatio, alluded to by Terence:
Desine, jam conclamatum est.
Lucan also alludes to this custom:
—————Sic funere primo
Attonitæ tacuere domus, quam corpora nondum
Conclamata jacent, noc mater crine soluto
Exigit ad sævos famularum brachia planctus.
The ancients held hasty inhumation in great dread, and grounded their apprehension on various current traditions. Thus Plato remarks the case of a warrior who was left for ten days on the field of battle amongst the dead, and who came to life when he was being borne to the sepulchre. Asclepiades restored life to a man who was also consigned to the funeral pile, and Pliny relates the case of Lucius Aviola and Lucius Lamia, who showed signs of life upon the pile, but were too much injured to be saved.
Amongst the many absurd fancies regarding the dead, was the superstitious belief of their being able to masticate in their coffin any substance buried with them. Women more especially were believed to be gifted with this post mortem faculty of moving their jaw-bones very loudly. Claro sonitu, says the learned Michael Ranfft, in his curious and elaborate work, de masticatione mortuorum. In this apprehension, that the deceased in their hunger might devour their own limbs, articles of food were interred with them.
According to the law of the Jews, who appear to have been in constant dread of pestilential disease, the inhumation of the dead were most hasty. Yet in this instance many Rabbi maintain that the Talmud has been erroneously interpreted, for although it decreed that a night should not be allowed to pass before inhumation, it clearly meant that actual death must have been ascertained.
While such fears are entertained of suspended animation being taken for dissolution, it is strange that in some savage tribes the aged are allowed to perish without any care being taken to prolong their lives. Such is the custom of some of the Eskimo, where old and decrepit creatures are abandoned in their huts and left to their fate. An ancient tradition stated that the inhabitants of the Isle of Syria never died of any distemper, but dropped into their graves at a certain old age.
It would be desirable that in cases where interment is speedily resorted to, a physician should attend, in order to ascertain that death had actually taken place. This is seldom practised, from the common saying “that it is uncivil on the part of a doctor to visit a dead patient.” Various means are employed to ascertain death: the looking-glass applied to the mouth of the corpse, to find out whether breath had departed; the coldness of the extremities, the falling of the lower jaw, the rigidity of the limbs, and various other appearances, are universally known; but in the villages of Italy and Portugal, pins and needles are frequently driven under the nails, in what is vulgarly called the quick, to excite an excruciating pain if life should not have fled. The most certain evidence, when bodies are long kept, is most decidedly the commencement of decomposition; but, in other cases, the action of the voltaic pile on a bared muscle is an infallible test.
It is much to be feared that on the field of battle and naval actions many individuals apparently dead are buried or thrown overboard. The history of François de Civille, a French captain, who was missing at the siege of Rouen, is rather curious: at the storming of the town he was supposed to have been killed, and was thrown, with other bodies, in the ditch, where he remained from eleven in the morning to half-past six in the evening; when his servant, observing some latent heat, carried the body into the house. For five days and five nights his master did not exhibit the slightest sign of life, although the body gradually recovered its warmth. At the expiration of this time, the town was carried by assault, and the servants of an officer belonging to the besiegers, having found the supposed corpse of Civille, threw it out of window, with no other covering than his shirt. Fortunately for the captain, he had fallen upon a dunghill, where he remained senseless for three days longer, when his body was taken up by his relations for sepulture, and ultimately brought to life. What was still more strange, Civille, like Macduff, had been “from his mother’s womb untimely ripp’d,” having been brought into the world by a Cæsarean operation, which his mother did not survive; and after his last wonderful escape he used to sign his name with the addition of “three times born, three times buried, and three times risen from the dead by the grace of God.”
The fate of the unfortunate Abbé Prevost, author of “Manon Lescaut,” and other esteemed novels, was lamentable beyond expression. In passing through the forest of Chantilly, he was seized with an apoplectic fit: the body, cold and motionless, was found the following morning, and carried by some woodcutters to the village surgeon, who proceeded to open it; it was during this terrific operation that the wretched man was roused to a sense of his miserable condition by the agonies he endured, to expire soon after in all the complicated horrors of his situation. Various cases are recorded where persons remained in a state of apparent death for a considerable time. Cullen mentions an hysterical woman who was deprived of movement and sensibility for six days. Licelus knew a nun of Bresia, who, after an hysteric attack, continued in an inanimate state for ten days and nights.
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