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Thursday, October 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 50.0° F  Overcast
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Old wives' tales from the crypt
Were people really buried alive back then?
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Hey, it's almost Halloween. Got any scary stories?
Jack O'Lantern

Jack: Hmm, scary stories. Yeah, I've got one for you. It's by Edgar Allan Poe, and I'll tell you the name of it in a minute, but first I want to set the scene. It was a dark and stormy night. No, that's not right. It was a dark and stormy century - specifically, the 19th century, when the Goth craze had its first go-around. Mary Shelley was patching together monsters from graveyard scraps. And Bram Stoker's Dracula was baring his teeth in the dark, dank forests of Transylvania. Meanwhile, ordinary people like you and me were pulling their hair out over the dreadful possibility of being buried alive. Not on purpose, mind you. But for the longest time there was either an epidemic of what I like to call premature encapsulation or an urban legend on the loose.

Actually, premature encapsulation, like premature ejaculation, has been going on during the entire history of mankind. People just don't seem to know whether they're coming or going. Today, something called whole-brain death is the criterion by which we judge whether someone has kicked the proverbial bucket. But if you go back a few years, not to mention a few centuries, things were a little murkier. Doctors would check for a pulse, hold a mirror up to the patient's mouth, poke and prod a bit, tickle the feet with a feather and, if there was no discernible reaction to any of this, pronounce the patient dead. Then, about the time the anatomist was making his first slice, the patient would suddenly wake up, ready to check out of the hospital. This would, of course, scare the bejesus out of the anatomist.

It also got people thinking: If we were capable of rising from the dead in the morgue, who's to say we weren't capable of rising from the dead in the grave? And the fact is, there'd always been stories of graves being dug up and scratch marks found on the inside of the coffin, or of cadavers wrenched like pretzels, the faces contorted in agony, clumps of hair twisted around now bony fingers. But these were mostly just stories. Before CSI came along and rationalized everything, people had to take death and dying on faith, which allowed their imaginations to run wild. But the 18th and the 19th centuries were this transition period when science was gradually taking over from religion. The afterlife was now up for grabs, and who knew what might crawl up out of the ground and say "Boo"?

As is so often the case in these situations, the response to the hysteria was even more hysterical than the hysteria. Doctors, for their part, came up with some torturously morbid ways of diagnosing death: nipple-pinchers, red-hot pokers, even tobacco enemas. Morticians chipped in with what were called security coffins. These were regular coffins outfitted with internal releases, tubes for air, alarm systems, etc. Luxury models might include a bottle of port, perhaps something to read. In Germany, "waiting mortuaries" started appearing. Here, the dearly departed would be kept around until putrefaction - the only truly reliable sign of death - kicked in. Until then, a finger or toe was attached to a string that was attached to a bell. If you rang for service (perhaps because you were feeling a little gassy), servants would come running.

Today, we don't hear too much about people being buried alive. We're more likely to hear about somebody waking up in a strange bed, with a scar where their kidney used to be. And I suppose the former was about as common as the latter. But if you want an old-fashioned thrill-and-chill, you might try Poe's "The Premature Burial" or, better yet, Jan Bondeson's Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear, which I regard as a 320-page argument in favor of cremation. Bondeson may not definitively prove whether they were alive or not, but he sure knows where the bodies were buried.

To catch premature ejaculation early, write to: MR. RIGHT, ISTHMUS, 101 KING ST., MADISON, WI 53703. OR CALL 251-1206, EXT. 152. OR EMAIL MRRIGHT@ISTHMUS.COM.

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