One of the stories that I cover on my London Ghost Walk is the story of the lady who, having died and having been buried, was “brought back to life” when the church verger decided to try and remove the wedding ring from her lifeless finger in the dead of night.
She was, as it had transpired, a victim to narcolepsy and, had it not been for the intervention of the verger, she would have joined the ranks of the many people who, in the past, were buried alive.
In truth, we have no way of knowing for certain how many poor unfortunates were buried alive in times gone by, since, on the whole, we only get to her about the lucky ones – such as the aforementioned lady – who regained consciousness before being consigned to an eternal rest in the cold earth or the church vault.
But, the stories of those who, seemingly, came back from the dead most certainly make for interesting, if a little grim, reading.
THE REVEREND RETURNS
Take, for example, the Reverend Schwartz, an early oriental missionary, who “died” in Delhi and whose funeral service was duly attended by friends, colleagues and other mourners.
As is customary on these occasions the funeral service included a stirring rendition of the deceased reverend’s favourite him.
And, it was as well for Schwartz that it did.
For, no sooner had the congregation reached the chorus than they became aware of a familiar voice joining in from inside the coffin.
Then there was the case of the eighty-year-old Greek Orthodox Bishop of Lesbos, Nicephorus Glycas who, having been declared dead by his physicians was, according to the rules of the orthodox church was immediately robed in the vestments of his office and, as was the custom, was placed upon the Bishop’s throne in the great church of Methymni.
During the day the faithful would file past to look upon the body of their dead Chief Pastor, and during the night relays of priests who keep vigil by his corpse.
You can imagine the shock of all those present when, during the second day of his lying in state, the Bishop suddenly sat bolt upright, glared at the line of passing mourners, and demanded to know what they were looking at!
Fortunately for the old man, a Bishop could not be buried until three days after his death, whereas, had he been a layman, he would have been interred immediately after death and, in consequence, would have been buried alive.
The physician and anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514 – 1564), author of the hugely influential De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (On the fabric of the human body in seven books), was at the height of his career when he set about dissecting the body of a Spanish nobleman.
As he cut into the noble’s flesh, he was horrified when the corpse shuddered and came back to life.
BRAUGHING OLD MAN’S DAY
On October 2nd every year the parishioners of the village of Braughing, in Hertfordshire, celebrate Old Man’s Day, during which they celebrate a 16th century resident by the name of Mathew Wall who, but for a quirk of fate and a lucky trip would have been buried alive.
He died on October 2nd 1595 and had, in fact, been placed in his coffin and was being carried to the grave, when the bearers slipped on some wet leaves and dropped the coffin.
The sudden jolt jarred Mathew back to consciousness and he was able to alert the bearers that he was still very much alive.
He went on to live for another twenty years and, rather than celebrate his birthday each year, he instead celebrated October 2nd as the “anniversary of his resurrection.”
When he did finally die – and this time they were certain of the fact – he left a bequest for his resurrection to be commemorated by the parish each October 2nd.
Thus it is that, on this day each year, the parishioners gather outside the Golden Fleece Inn, where the vicar regales them with the story of Mathew Wall’s close shave with premature burial.
As the story reaches its conclusion, the current occupant of Wall’s former cottage steps forward and pays his annual fee of £1, whereupon the church bells begin to ring and Fleece Lane, that leads to the church, is enthusiastically swept by children from the local school as Matthew Walls’ grave is tended whilst prayers are said over it.
You can read more about this delightfully, and decidedly, eccentric annual ceremony on the parish website.
The 1799 tome Information Relevant To Persons Who Have Been Buried Alive makes mention of a Countess who, having died of Smallpox, was kept in the house for three days before being laid to rest in the family vault.
However, only a short time after her interment, people heard a knocking sound coming from inside the vault and, on closer inspection, they could also hear the Countesses voice.
The authorities were summoned, and it quickly became apparent that the lady was, in fact alive inside the tomb.
But, amazingly, those present opted not to break the door down with an axe and release the poor lady, bu,t rather, they thoughyt it better to send for the key to the door in order to minimise damage.
Unfortunately, the messenger who was sent for the key took several hours to return with it, with the result that, when the door was finally opened, the Countess had actually suffocated; the look on her face bearing harrowing testimony to the sheer agonies she had endured during her final hours.
NOT JUST IN THE PAST
Although, as is more than apparent from the above accounts, incidences of premature burial were commonplace in the past, examples of people being declared dead who were, in fact, still alive continued into recent times.
In New York, in 1964, for example, a post-mortem was interrupted, just as the first cut was being made, by the “corpse” suddenly leaping off the table and seizing the surgeon by the throat.
Although the patient survived the ordeal, the fate of the dissecting doctor was not such a fortunate one, as he promptly suffered a heart attack and dropped dead on the spot.
MOWED DOWN IN MOSCOW
In February 2016, a woman was run down by a police car when she tried to run across a four lane motorway near the Russian capital of Moscow.
An ambulance was called, but the paramedics declared that she was beyond their help and they promptly declared her dead at the scene.
She was moved to the roadside and her body placed in a black plastic body bag and the police set about clearing the road so that normal traffic flow could be resumed.
An hour later the attending police officers heard moaning coming from inside the body bag and, on tearing it open, they discovered the ‘dead’ woman writhing, groaning in absolute agony and begging them to help her.
According to Russian media reports “officials have decided to sack the emergency medical team who attended the scene and had declared her dead due to their apparent lack of professionalism” – that’s one way of putting it!
A FATE WORSE THAN DEATH
There can be few more horrific experiences, I should imagine, than waking up in the cold and dark of a grave to find that you have been buried alive. Indeed, one might say, with only the slightest tinge of irony, that it would be nothing more than a fate wrose than death.
No wonder cremation caught on.