In my mind, the urn-burial of the ancients has always been sacredly and pleasantly associated. The clean, white marble, contain the purified remains of all we have loved, is an object around which affection loves to linger; but the damp, dark grave, with its silent, loathsome work of corruption, is a revolting subject of contemplation, even where love is stronger than death. Then there is the fear of being buried before the vital spark is extinct, and of returning to consciousness with the weight of the earth upon you, and the fresh air of heaven shut out forever! To me this idea is so terribly distinct that it is the spectre of my waking hours, and the night-mare of my dreams. Death himself has no horrors for me; though well content with life, and bound to it by the strongest ties, I think I could calmly close my eyes beneath its oblivious touch; but human nature shrinks at the thought of being buried alive! Perhaps the vividness of this impression, is owing to the remark I frequently heard from an aged relative, while I was yet a very small child that “hundreds and hundreds were buried before they were dead, when the yellow fever raged so terribly in Boston.” That period is well remembered by our fathers, when pestilence walked abroad at noon-day, and the hearth-stone was silent and dreary as the tomb. The death-carts went their continued round through every hour of the day and night, and unshrouded and uncoffined, the newly dead were hurried to their last home. I knew a man, who, during this time of peril, was snatched from the grave merely by the persevering affection of his wife. Of the correctness of the story there is no doubt; for I have often heard it repeated by both the parties concerned. This awful visitation of God came upon them when they were newly married; when existence was happiness, and separation worse than death. The young husband became a victim to that disease, which was breathing destruction over the city. The friend of his wife urged her to seek refuge in the country, and not risk her own life in a useless attempt to save his. But no persuasion could induce her to leave him; night and day she was by his bedside; and in the anguish of her heart she prayed that the pestilence might likewise rest upon her. But her prayer was not answered–surely and rapidly it did its work upon all her heart held dear; but to her, death would not come, though she prayed for it, and sought it with tears. She had inhaled the breath of her dying husband; but to her it was harmless; and in the madness of despair she repined at the merciful decrees of Heaven. No one was with her in the house–she was alone with the dead. Suddenly the silence of the deserted streets was interrupted by the rumbling of the death-carts; and she knew they had come to take him away from her sight forever; and with the thought, it suddenly flashed into her mind, that life might still be in him! Her entreaties excited compassion, and she was permitted to keep the corpse one half hour longer. The impression made upon her mind had the strength of inspiration; and though every restorative which ingenuity could devise, had failed to produce effect, she would not relinquish hope. Again the carts came round, and the solemn sound, “Bring out the dead,” disturbed the fearful stillness. Again the young wife entreated, wept, and screamed–the hearts of the men, whose dreadful employment accustomed them to such scenes, were touched; but they would not yield. They said the safety of the city required them to be firm in the discharge of their duty; that they had already disobeyed strict orders, and they dared not do it again; that the hope of restoring him was mere insanity; it was evident he had long been dead.” When she found they would not be moved by her prayers, she threw her arms around the body and clung to it with the strength of madness; declaring if they buried one, they should bury both. The men, after a few gentle attempts to remove her, dashed the tears from their eyes, and saying, “We cannot separate them,” left her another half hour of hope. The moments of that interval had a value, of which mortals under ordinary circumstances, can form no conception. Restorative after restorative was applied; but all in vain. With sickening anxiety, she fastened her eyes upon the watch, and then on the stiff, cold form beside her. The half hour had nearly gone; in five minutes they would again come to claim the dead; and she felt that she must resist no longer. She breathed into his nostrils–she moved her hand upon his chest, to restore the action of the lungs–but no change came over his rigid features. She bathed his temples and moistened his lips with sal-volatile – the terrible rumbling of carts was heard in the distance and in the trembling eagerness of the moment, she spilled the contents of the vial into his nostrils– a sudden convulsion passed over the face of the dead! a short, quick gasp –and the eyes heavily opened! The men with the death-carts were startled by a loud, shrill shriek that sounded as if it tore asunder the soul from which it came. When they entered, they found the dead living and the living senseless. Both husband and wife were soon after restored to health. They lived to be the parents of a numerous family; and the husband now survives her, who, with the strong arm of love thus snatched him from an early grave.
Godey’s Lady’s Book [Philadelphia, PA], September 1830
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Yellow fever was a disease, like cholera, so feared, that the dead and the not-entirely dead were hurried to the grave, where some were buried alive. Hence the young wife’s rightful terror at the advent of the death-cart. While we may admire the lady’s strength of character in saving her husband from a certain doom, we must surely ask ourselves, what would the harvest be? She became the mother of a numerous family and, worn out by child-bearing and domestic duties, was survived by the man she had saved. Scarcely the ending this romantic story deserved. Perhaps a more sensible option would have been to resign herself to the merciful decrees of Heaven and then marry a wealthy older gentleman who perhaps would have been less fruitful of progeny.
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
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.