In German folklore, a Nachzehrer, also known as shroud eater, is a sort of vampire.
According to legend, it needed to devour both its burial shroud and body in order to survive.
Its name translates to “after (nach) living off (zehren)” likely alluding to their living after death or living off humans after death in addition to the choice of “nach” for “after” which is similar to “nacht” (“night”).
The Nachzehrer was popular especially in the folklore of the northern regions of Germany, but tales of similar creatures are said to exist in the folklore of Silesia and Bavaria, as well as amongst the Kashubians of northern Poland.
A Nachzehrer is created most commonly after suicide, and sometimes from an accidental death.
According to popular folklore, a person does not become a nachzehrer from being bitten or scratched, as the transformation happens after death and is not communicable, but Nachzehrers are also related to sickness and disease. For example, If a large group of people died of the plague, the first person to have died is believed to be a Nachzehrer.
Once a dead person becomes a Nachzehrer, it is believed that it would begin eating its own burial shroud. Once this item is completely consumed, it would then eat its own flesh.
According to one version of the story, it is during this time that members of the deceased person’s family would begin to weaken physically, as the nachzehrer is feeding on their life force.
Alternatively, it is believed that the nachzehrer would only commence feasting on its family once it has finished eating itself.
Curious enough, It has been suggested that the idea of a corpse eating itself may not be as farfetched as it seems at first glance. In fact, If a body were to be left in an open grave, it is not unlikely that scavengers would eat its flesh. If people had not seen the scavengers (or were unaware that scavengers exist), it is possible that they would have speculated that the corpses were eating themselves when they came across partially eaten bodies.
The Nachzehrer was similar to the Slavic vampire in that it was known to be a recently deceased person who returned from the grave to attack family and village acquaintances. And both are undead, and need to feed on the living in order to survive. Nevertheless, the feeding habits of both creatures are different. Additionally, whilst vampires are commonly believed to be able to turn others into vampires by their bites, the nachzehrers are not able to turn others into their own.
Some believed that the Nachzehrer would leave its grave, shapeshifting into the form of a pig (and not into bats, like traditional vampires) and pay a visit to their family members to feast on their blood. In addition, it has been claimed that the nachzehrer would go to a church and rings the bells. Anyone who hears the ringing of these bells are said to die shortly after.
Another lesser known ability of the Nachzehrer is the power it had to bring death by causing its shadow to fall upon someone. Those hunting the Nachzehrer in the graveyard would listen for grunting sounds that it would make while it munched on its grave clothes.
Another belief was that if a person’s name was not removed from his burial clothing, that person would be a candidate for becoming a nachzehrer.
Such a belief was found even in the Republic of Venice, where the body of a woman, with a brick in her mouth, was discovered in 2006 in a mass grave of plague-dead people.
The official killing myth says a Nachzehrer can be killed by placing a coin in its mouth, and then chopping off its head. It can be discerned from this that a mere coin in the mouth may result in paralysis as some myths say that a stake through a vampire’s heart does.
Alternatively, one could take precautions to ensure that the deceased do not turn into this creature or, if the transformation is inevitable, to stop it from gaining strength.
The solution to this problem seems to have been pretty simple: since the nachzehrer need to devour its shroud and body in order to survive, one could stop it from doing so by placing a stone in the dead person’s mouth, or by driving spikes into his / her mouth.
Finding Nachzehrer in order to kill them is not difficult, as it lies in its coffin in a rather peculiar manner: one of its thumbs would be held in the other hand, and its left eye would always be opened.
In addition, the nachzehrer is believed to be a rather noisy creature, and the noise that it makes whilst eating its burial shroud / body can be heard by people passing by its grave. Additionally, they are easily found while eating their burial shroud due to the noise they produce doing so.
Images from web – Google Research