Popular Science Monthly/Volume 17/August 1880/The Extreme Rarity of Premature Burials

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By Professor WILLIAM SEE, M. D.

THE article on "Premature Burials," in the January (1880) number of this journal, from its tendency to magnify the importance of the probabilities of premature burial in cases of trance and suspended animation, and from its assertion that, in effect, the ordinary physician or general practitioner is not capable of reaching a satisfactory conclusion upon the signs of death, has led the writer to brief in what follows the opinion of the medical jurists of the present day upon this subject. That the trance state has been mistaken for death, and that premature burials have taken place, seem to be fully recognized in the system of morgues or dead-houses in various parts of Europe where bodies are so placed that the slightest movements will be brought to the notice of attendants; and in the laws which in most countries require the lapse of twenty-four hours and longer periods between death and burial. Yet competent authorities tell us that such institutions (morgues) are superfluous when ordinary care is taken by the relatives of a deceased person; and Taylor says that he has never met with any instance in which a body laid out in them was resuscitated after there had been a proper verification of death.[1]

In discussing this subject, how far are we justified in taking the statements of the earlier writers? The credulity of the public in similar matters is sufficiently shown in such works as Carpenter on "Mesmerism, Spiritualism," etc., and Hammond on "Fasting Girls," to induce us to view general statements with much suspicion. M. Fontenelle has published forty-six cases of premature burial from the time of Plutarch downward. Taylor, from whose work on medical jurisprudence this article draws freely, after a careful examination of all these cases, rejects the greater number of them simply because they are drawn from such sources as to render them perfectly inadmissible as evidence. M. Carré, in 1845, published the assertion that forty-six cases had occurred since 1833. Taylor examines his cases, and finds that no particulars by which their accuracy can be tested have been given. The whole subject, as taken from the tone of the article now commented upon, and from public opinion in general, resolves itself into two statements, viz.: that it is quite possible, and has been proved, that a state of trance, prolonged and of a nature to simulate death, may exist and deceive even those whose daily avocations make them familiar with death itself; and that many cases are on record where changes in the position of the body, and even where the birth of children, have taken place after interment.

For the existence of a trance state sufficient to simulate death, all appreciable movements of respiration and circulation must be suspended for a considerable length of time, and there is but one properly authenticated case on record as accepted by physiologists; even this case will not bear too close discussion at the present day. We are told in works on physiology that a Colonel Townshend was able at will to suspend animation to the extent of obliterating any perception of the heart- or pulse-beat, and of any respiratory movement, as a mirror held over the mouth and nose showed no dimness of its surface; and further, that he was able to continue in this condition for the space of half an hour: at the end of this time gradually the signs of returning vitality began to assert themselves until a perfect restoration of the functions of life ensued. From the description generally given, we are led to suppose that this was done not once but several times, and that the subject was under careful inspection by medical men during the continuance of this state. But Braid, in his "Observations on Trance," tells us that Colonel Townshend, as a patient of Dr. Cheyne, was in the last stages of a chronic kidney-disease when, nine hours before his death, he made known to his medical attendant his conviction of an ability to "die or expire when he pleased, and yet, by an effort or somehow, he could come to life again." This he tried before Dr. Cheyne, with the result as just recorded. This case happened nearly one hundred and fifty years ago, and, in view of its occurring only once and under such peculiar circumstances, with no details as to the extent and accuracy of the means taken to obviate all sources of error, leaves room for the skeptic, without casting a slur upon the good name and reputation of Dr. Cheyne, to express strong doubts upon its probability.

A case which has interested the medical profession very much and is of recent date, is that of the late Dr. Groux ("Proceedings of the Medical Society, County of Kings," vol. iii., p. 350, et seq.), in whose person there existed from birth an opening or fissure in the breastbone (sternum) which he could extend by forcible separation to the width of two inches. He was supposed to have possessed the power to arrest the action of the heart at will—for a duration of about twenty seconds—but without any other disturbance of his usual condition. The arrest of the heart's action in this case is affirmed positively by some, doubted by others; one examination by three medical gentlemen developed no stoppage of the heart's action, but merely a stoppage of the pulse at the left wrist, attributed to the unusual mobility of the collar-bone (clavicle), by which the artery (subclavian) passing under it to the wrist was compressed.

Medical jurists, after carefully examining all evidence that can be accepted upon such cases, have concluded that it is impossible to suspend animation or to simulate the same, without detection by the ordinary means, for so long a space of time as one hour; and it is fair to assume that when such cases are reported they are due to gross negligence, for where the medical practitioner does his duty and calls in to his aid the ordinary means as taught in all the medical schools, of listening at proper intervals and for a sufficient length of time for the heart-beat, he will find that no heart can intermit its beats—that is, remain in perfect repose—for a space of five minutes in time. Cases are cited in newly-born children where twenty minutes have been supposed to elapse after suspension of the heart's action before resuscitation took place, but these are considered as due to imperfect or careless tests.

The respiratory movements coincide generally with the heart's action: all respiration ceasing, the heart never continues to act longer than five minutes, and these movements can be noted by the non-medical observer, by placing a piece of looking-glass, or a dish filled with water or mercury, upon the chest, and allowing the light to be reflected upon the surface; the slightest movement will result in oscillations.

A common mistake of death for a supposititious trance state is the continued or increased warmth of the body, which is so remarkable in some cases; there are instances where days have elapsed before the body was allowed to be put in the ground, because of its continued warmth, and of the absence of the corpse pallor; and again it has been frequently noted in cases of death from cholera that bodies, which at the time of death were moderately cool, have developed a temperature of 87° Fahr. and of 92° Fahr., and in cases of death from injuries to the nervous system even a much higher temperature has been reached—evidences, as Taylor puts it, of some latent vital power or chemical force still lingering about the circulating system.

While the trance state is a source of mystery and wonderment to the popular mind, the positive statements of a change of position in a body, and even of the birth of children after death, are something more tangible and real, and carry their convictions in a more decided manner. Yet these phenomena in many cases are accounted for in the most natural way. There is inherent in the muscular tissue of our bodies a certain irritability or tonicity—vitality, perhaps, is a good expression—of the muscle itself, which is independent of the brain, nerves, circulation, or respiration, in that it continues to exhibit its function—that of muscular contraction—for an appreciable time after death has abolished these forces, and physiologists, by supplying the muscles with nutrition, such as the injection of defibrinated blood, have been able to excite this irritability so late as sixteen hours after death. It is this irritability which results in the rigor mortis, or rigidity of death, and which sets in generally within five or six hours, lasting from sixteen to twenty-four hours. With this rigidity is a muscular contraction usually not resulting in any change of position of the body; but the flexor muscles exhibit a greater tendency to contraction than the extensors, and there are instances where this contraction has been quite marked, resulting of course in a change of position. If a body be not properly laid out and placed in a coffin in the cramped position in which rigor mortis has set it, there will necessarily be some change of position when, at the end of the time mentioned, this condition passes off and a relaxation ensues. In one case of death from cholera, half an hour after complete cessation of circulation and respiration, the muscles of the arms underwent spontaneously various motions of contraction and relaxation, continuing for upward of an hour.

The fact of finding a dead child lying by the side of its mother in the coffin, with the knowledge that it was born or extruded after interment, must have a startling effect upon the ordinary bystanders, yet Dr. Aveling ("Obstetrical Transactions," London, 1873) has reported thirty cases where the expulsion of the child was due "either to a contracting power remaining in the uterus after the death of the rest of the body, or to the pressure exerted on the uterus by the gases of putrefaction, the latter being the more frequent cause."

The only motive in preparing this paper has been, not to contradict the fact that premature burials may have taken place and under the most unhappy circumstances, but to place renewed confidence in the ability of the ordinary general practitioner of medicine to recognize the distinction between a state of trance and a state of death, and to induce a disregard of the idle stories of ignorant and superstitious persons upon premature burials.

  1. Forty-six thousand bodies were deposited in the mortuary institutions of Germany during a space of twenty years.