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The “Hospitals for the Dead” prevented the fear of being buried alive in Victorian times

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Thanks to modern technology, and also to the increasing scientific preparation of the doctors, there is no longer the concern to be buried alive. Throughout history, even relatively recent, the gruesome hypothesis was actually a legitimate concern, particularly for those who suffered from episodes or “attacks” of a condition called catalepsy, also called “apparent death”. Similar to narcolepsy, catalepsy is a state of uncontrolled muscle stiffness, often linked to episodes of catatonia. Often found in patients with schizophrenia, catatonic states have been part of the human condition for centuries, but only relatively recently has medical science been able to identify them and distinguish them from the event from clinical death. Thus we understand why being buried alive could be a concern of no little consequence.

Edgar Allan Poe, master of the noir genre, has helped instill a deep-rooted social anguish around the prospect of being buried alive. When this terrible hypothesis was not so peregrine, there was a sort of competition to find any means that could counteract any error (or horror).

A bizarre solution was the creation of “hospitals for the dead”, where the bodies were kept under observation for a couple of days, to make sure of the patient’s death. The “waiting morgues”, as they were called, were well supplied with food, wine and cigars, in case a person had to wake up, perhaps shouting “I’m not dead yet!” In Monty Python style.

This was certainly a creative solution, but not able to solve the real problem: medical knowledge and technology had not progressed enough to understand how catalepsy worked, which was not even a sign of imminent death. Doctors and laymen have often photographed the unsuspecting catatonic individuals, in poses reminiscent of what we today call “planking”.

Catalepsy also involves an insensitivity to pain, which lasts for the duration of the episode: this means that the other measures adopted during the 19th century, the “insensitivity tests”, were just as ineffective. At other people which believed thay were dead, were broken fingers, or were subjected to enemas of tobacco smoke. It was assumed that, if the unfortunate man had not woken up during these treatments, there was little or no risk of burying him alive. For extreme cases, however, creative inventors designed “safety coffins”, equipped with horn or bell, which were meant to warn people above the ground that the buried was not actually dead. Some models also had a supply of poison, which was intended to ensure a death faster, in case you could not able to make yourself heard.

Nobody really knows if these solutions have ever saved anyone, but they certainly helped to counter the fear of being buried alive. It would have to be many years before the catatonia was recognized, strangely after being induced with hypnosis. The modern understanding of the phenomenon ensures an almost certainty of not being buried alive. Today it is known that catalepsy is actually relatively common, and is currently included in the category of sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy. People who experience the state, for drug use, for schizophrenia, or for other disorders, can take medicines and practice relaxation techniques, which help to live a substantially normal life: they no longer have to fear of incurring a tragic death from buried alive!

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