The nineteenth-century obsession with premature burial

Precipitate_burialDan Piepenbring at The Paris Review:

Premature Burial runs to more than five hundred pages, and its most gripping sections are given over to accounts of interment gone awry, along with the many anxieties of the nineteenth-century deathbed. There’s the man who sank into such a prolonged lethargy that he was thought dead until he “broke into a profuse sweat” in his coffin; the young woman whose corpse was exhumed for reburial only to be discovered “in the middle of the vault, with disheveled hair and the linen torn to pieces … gnawed in her agony”; the man whose fear of premature burial was so severe that he instructed his family to leave his body undisturbed for ten days after death, “with the face uncovered, and watched night and day. Bells were to be fastened to his feet. And at the end of the second day veins were to be opened in the arm and leg.”

Tebb draws some of his most abject cases, fittingly enough, from The Undertakers’ and Funeral Directors’ Journal, a veritable storehouse of medical malfeasance. The Journal ran at least one story of a pregnant woman who gave birth in the grave. It also has an episode with one of the only happy endings in the whole book:

“Mrs. Lockhart, of Birkhill, who died in 1825, used to relate to her grandchildren the following anecdote of her ancestor, Sir William Lindsay, of Covington, towards the close of the seventeenth century:—‘Sir William was a humorist and noted, moreover, for preserving the picturesque appendage of a beard at a period when the fashion had long passed away.

more here.