Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Premature Burial- A justifiable Victorian fear

I walked through Rushton Spencer churchyard with a local group and came across the tombstone of Thomas Meaykin buried on 16th July 1781 and as the inscription reads “ As a man falleth before united men so fell I” Two words in the Greek alphabet follow bia thanatos meaning to die violently. The story of Thomas is a terrible one according to Murray's Handbook for Staffordshire (1868 )

“This is a reference to a tragic story of a youth who dared to make love to his master's daughter, and was supposed to come to a sudden end hereby. At all events he was buried in the reverse of the usual way.”

The local legend is that he was giving a sleeping draught by the master which gave the appearance of death. Meakyn was buried initially in Stone, but when he was re-interred at Rushton and the full horror that he had been entombed prematurely was revealed.

Premature burial! The fear of being buried alive was a real one given the inexactness of medical science then. As the 19th century progressed , the possibility of premature burial increased. In the poorer urban areas doctors were hard pressed to keep control especially during an epidemic. When a patient was seriously ill or obviously dying they were happy to issue death certificates on application of the relative without seeing the corpse. The leading medical journal of the time outlined the fear in dramatic prose

“The last footfall departs from the churchyard, leaving the entranced sleeper behind in his hideous shell soon to awaken to consciousness and to a benumbed half- suffocated existence for a few minutes or else , more horrible still, there he lies beneath the ground conscious of what he has been and what he still is”

During a panic in the 1880s, doctors received much correspondence from people who had narrowly avoided this fate. One man was about to be screwed down in his coffin . He was aware of what was happening to him, but could not communicate to the undertaker. It was only when someone noticed that the “corpse” had broken out into a sweat that he was rescued.

As can be imagined many people took precautions against the possibility of being buried alive, The author Wilkie Collins left a letter that whoever found his body should call a doctor and make certain. Lady Burton provided for her heart to be pierced with a needle while the composer Meyerbeer arranged for bells to be tied to his extremities when he was dead.

By 1896 there were about 200 books on premature burial. It is not surprising that the superstitious believed that people who had been buried alive returned as vampires to take revenge on the living