Was He Buried Alive? An Undertaker’s Obsession: 1907

A safety coffin to prevent burial alive.

A safety coffin to prevent burial alive.

Had Grewsome Experience

Stories Lead Undertaker to Believe He Has Buried Men Alive and He Investigates

[Glasgow (Ky.) Cor. Nashville American]

Recently a lady living here died, and the body was prepared for burial. Several hours after the lady moved and otherwise showed signs of life. She rallied and lived several days, but again died and was buried. The occurrence created much comment, and is still the subject of discussion at times, it being the second case of the kind in this county within a few years, the other happening at a village known as Hiseville.

One night recently a crowd of business men were discussing matters in general and the strange death of the woman was commented on. A well-known business man, whom we will call Clark, his real name being withheld, and who had had a considerable experience as an undertaker, related the following incident, he claimed for the benefit of his undertaker friends, there being present several who had been or were interested in such matters:

“While I was in business at M___, a small village in this county, I was called on to make a burial. When I reached the home of the decedent, I found the corpse still warm and the muscles relaxed, though death was supposed to have occurred several hours before. After the burial I returned home and after a few days forgot the incident.

“Some three months after this I happened to pick up a daily paper, and in scanning the headlines I read, ‘Almost Buried Alive.’ Carefully reading the article, I found a parallel case to the one I had three months before, and as I slowly read how the man had gone into a trance and the burial was about to take place, the corpse was found to be not only warm but perspiring freely, the fact dawned upon me that I had actually buried a man alive. Dropping the paper I sprang up and started for a pick and shovel. The impression seemed to linger with me that the man was still alive, and was at that moment crying for aid. After securing the necessary tools, I began to reason with myself that if I had buried the man alive it was purely an accident, and that if such was the case he had long since died from suffocation, lack of food, &c., so I put the tools back in their place and went about my duties. Try as I would I could not throw off the feeling that I had committed an awful crime and one that I would have to answer for at the judgment day. In my mind’s eye I could see his widow and orphans at judgment, as I had seen them hover about the casket just before consigning it to its last resting place, each with an accusing finger pointing at me. At times I would go for several days without the matter giving me much worry, my duties so completely occupying all of my time, until a chance meeting of relatives of the deceased, or some remark by some one would bring the whole panorama before my mind, becoming more vivid each time.

“Several weeks elapsed and matters were in no better shape than at first. I had grown thin, nervous, irritable, and friends remarked on the change and advised me to seek medical advice, which I steadfastly refused to do, knowing that all the drugs in the world would not reach my case.

“What I wanted most was to share the secret with some one, yet I dared not do so, even to my wife, who was much concerned about me.

“One blustery night while I lay tossing on my bed unable to sleep and going over the horrible details for the ten thousandth time and wondering how long the whole thing would last, like a flash it occurred to me that I might forever settle whether the man had really been dead or not by opening the grave. I wondered why I had not thought of this before. The thought made me sit up in bed. It seemed to me the only way I could at last settle the question as to whether I was really a murderer or not.

“Outside the wind was howling with an occasional dash of rain, and an inky darkness prevailed—just the kind of a night for ghosts to be out. The thought set the cold chills chasing down my spine.

“After an hour spent in weighing the matter, I finally yielded to the strange influence which I could not shake off, and arising and dressing, I got a shovel and started for the graveyard, a mile away, determined to settle all doubts. I reasoned that on such a night no one was likely to be out after midnight and as there were no houses close by, I had very little chance of being detected.

“After trudging the distance I reached the graveyard, where a new problem presented itself. How was I to locate the grave without a light? And I dared not produce a light. The work must be done in the dark until the coffin was reached, when I expected to light a candle and view the body.

“For an hour I walked about among the graves, locating a grave and then deciding it was not the right one, realizing that if my plans were carried out. I must find the grave and begin work. I decided to take chances on lighting a candle until I could be certain of the spot I sought. So with the light I went from grave to grave until I came to the one sought, and after I had got “the lay of the land,” so to speak, I began. When I had been working something like half an hour as noiseless as possible, when I heard some one, not very far away, say in a distinct voice, Do you suppose we could have been mistaken about that light?’

“My heart ceased beating, for to be caught in this act not only meant disgrace to me and my family, but a term in the penitentiary. How could I explain my presence there? Who would believe my story? All this flashed through my mind in an instant and I was completely at my wits’ end. To run meant the abandoning of my purpose and to stay meant detection. What must I do? The nights of torture that I had spent arose before me and rather than a repetition I decided the State Prison preferable, so getting down in the place I had dug out, I waited.

“The men who had been attracted to the cemetery by the light flitting from grave to grave, walked past me discussing what might have caused it. When near me they paused and said, ‘Here is where W___ is buried. I don’t suppose any of his family would be out on such a night, do you?’ The answer was lost as they moved on and to my supreme joy departed.

“After a short time I resumed my work, and my efforts were rewarded. After carefully scraping the dirt off the box, with a small bit I bored a hole and with a keyhole saw soon cut a large section of the box ready to move. After this it was only necessary to remove two screws and the object of my search was in view.

“Then the question of how I would find it arose in my mind. Would the features be distorted and fearful as if from intense suffering, a conviction of my error, or would they be as they were when last I gazed on them, calm and serene? For one short moment I faltered, but summoning all my fast shrinking courage I struck a match and attempted to light the candle, but the anxiety and strain which I had undergone, made me extremely nervous and the first attempt was a failure.

“The next effort was more successful and glancing down I experienced the first genuine pleasure I had felt in months. There calm, peacefully and beautifully to me, at least, lay my friend, and no one can imagine the joy and pleasure of the moment unless they have had a similar experience.

“I replaced the covers, climbed out of the grave and soon had it filled and went on my way home. I simply walked on air, all of my imaginary troubles which had come so near wrecking my health had vanished. I reached home at 3 o’clock in the morning, and, throwing myself on the bed, experienced the first refreshing sleep that had visited me in weeks.

“Shortly after opening my place of business the next day two of my closest neighbors came in and after a while one of them said:

“Tom and myself sat up with old Brother C__ last night until 1 o’clock and as we came home we had to cross the graveyard. Just before we reached the place we thought we saw a light going from grave to grave. We came through the graveyard, but did not see anything, and we concluded that we were mistaken.’ How I could have ever overlooked the fact that Mr. __, who lived near the cemetery, was seriously ill and that neighbors were continually going to and from the house, is more than I have ever been able to explain, except that in my trouble and intense suffering I forgot it.

“However the matter was settled, and I was not even suspected, and I determined never to tell the secret to anyone, but the matter was brought to my mind so forcibly to-night, that I decided to tell it that some of you young undertakers may not make the same mistake I did, which came so near causing the loss of my life, or, worse, my reason.”

The Wichita [KS] Daily Eagle 1 June 1907: p. 4

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil has written before of premature burial. It was a subject that obsessed many people of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. There was no simple way to tell if someone was actually dead. Physicians might use the mirror; they might prick, burn, or whip the skin, or apply a galvanic battery, yet the only certain test was to wait several days for signs of decomposition. Hygienic concerns often encouraged hasty burials, yet there are also stories of corpses left unburied for weeks because they showed no signs of bodily dissolution, even when unembalmed. Some persons made death-bed requests or wrote in their wills that they wished to have their throats cut or hearts pierced, just to make sure they were really, truly dead. Mrs Daffodil will undoubtedly have a story or two on this subject in the near future.

One appreciates that this undertaker was conscientious about whether he had buried a living man or a corpse, but three months is rather a long time period over which to develop scruples.

There will be many stories about death, funerals, mourning, and other grewsome subjects in The Victorian Book of the Dead, which is nearly ready for distribution.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,”where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes.

6 thoughts on “Was He Buried Alive? An Undertaker’s Obsession: 1907

    1. chriswoodyard Post author

      Heavens! One knows people who are very much afraid of dying, but this is the first time Mrs Daffodil has heard of a person paranoid about premature interment in this day of modern embalming methods. Is she not reassured by arterial embalming? Poor creature!


      1. chriswoodyard Post author

        Perhaps the presence of a vial of lightly stoppered chloroform in the coffin recommended by the founders of The Association for the Prevention of Premature Interment would reassure her. Mrs Daffodil feels for someone who cannot relax–even in death.


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