The Premature Burial

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The Premature Burial


By: Antoine Joseph Wiertz

Date: 1854

About the Artist: Antoine Wiertz (1806–1865) was a relatively obscure painter of the Romantic school. In 1832, he won a paid fellowship called the Prix de Rome, which enabled him to paint in Rome. At the conclusion of the fellowship, he returned to his native Belgium, where he was moderately successful. He made several unsuccessful attempts to submit his work to the Paris Salon. In 1852, the Belgian government offered to build him a studio in exchange for a series of works of art.


Prior to the advent of modern medicine, which renders the possibility of incorrect pronouncement of death—and premature burial—quite unlikely, there were few definitive means of determining death. As a result, it was not unheard of for an extremely ill person to fall into a coma or a stupor and to appear to observers to be dead. Bodies were often quickly buried, particularly in times of plague or cholera. There have been numerous tales, dating back to very early history, of the apparently dead spontaneously reviving and living on for extended periods of time. One such story is that of Marjorie Halcrow Erskine of Chirnside, Scotland. She was reported to have died in 1674 and was buried in a rather shallow grave by the village sexton, who planned to rob her grave and steal her jewelry. As the sexton attempted to cut off the woman's finger in order to obtain one of her rings, she suddenly revived. Ms. Erskine was able to return home, and she lived a full life, giving birth to and raising two sons.

In the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, in times of plague, cholera, and smallpox epidemics, a substantial number of premature burials were reported. A nineteenth century researcher named William Tebb published a book in 1896 entitled Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented. In it, he detailed 219 instances of near premature burial, 149 cases of genuine premature burial, ten cases of dissection before actual death, and two cases in which embalming began before death had occurred.

Wiertz's paintings tended to be larger than life, and many of them had morbid themes. Some examples of this morbidity in his artwork include: The Premature Burial (1854), The Two Beauties: La Belle Rosine (1847), The Suicide (1854), and the triptych The Last Thoughts and Visions of a Decapitated Head (1853). The latter painting was intended to be a strong statement in opposition to the death penalty. Like many of his contemporary Romantic artists, Wiertz was opposed to the use of capital punishment, both from a political and a humanitarian perspective. Wiertz drew some of his inspiration from the popular literature of his day. The Last Thoughts and Visions of a Decapitated Head probably was inspired, at least in part, by Victor Hugo's 1828 novel entitled Le Dernier Jour D'Un Condamne (The Last Day of a Condemned Man/Convict). The Premature Burial was inspired by American writer Edgar Allan Poe's 1850 short story of the same name.



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During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, various methods were employed to ensure that an individual was, in fact, dead. In one method, a hot poker was applied to the patient's rectum, while another involved pouring warm urine into the patient's mouth. Yet another creative strategy required the attending physician to stick the finger of the apparently deceased into his (the physician's) ear in an effort to feel the buzz or hum of life. In 1846, a French physician named Eugene Bouchut suggested that the stethoscope be used to determine when the heart stopped beating in order to determine that death had occurred.

The most extreme measures for preventing premature burial occurred in Germany between 1790 and 1860. There, roughly fifty centers called Leichenhäuser, or waiting mortuaries, were built. In these buildings, corpses were kept in warm rooms. Each corpse had strings wrapped around fingers and toes, with the other ends of the strings attached to bells. The bells were meant to be rung by the awakening person, but there is no report of a bell ever ringing. The bodies were maintained until evidence of putrefaction was unequivocally present (complete with requisite stench). Some of the waiting mortuaries had luxury and common rooms—some were even open for public observation. A later Leichenhaus in Vienna utilized an electronic bell system.

Individuals went to elaborate lengths to prevent premature burial. Some requested that their heads be severed. Others wanted their arteries slashed (Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, 1805–1875), their bodies dissected (Polish composer Frédéric Chopin, 1810–1849), or their bodies embalmed. All these measures were designed to ensure with absolute certainty that the individual was dead before he or she was buried.

In 1896, Count Karnice-Kamicki, a chamberlain to the Russian czar, invented a device to be affixed to a coffin in order to avoid premature burial—or, rather, to provide a means of correcting that unfortunate situation. His mechanism was comprised of a tube running from the inside of the coffin to an airtight box several feet above the ground. A spring, which ran the length of the tube, was attached to a glass sphere sitting on the chest of the body. The slightest movement of the body would trigger the spring, causing the lid of the airtight box to pop open, thus allowing light and air to into the interior of the coffin via the connecting tube. The box above the grave also contained a flag, a bell or a buzzer, and a light that could be seen and heard from a considerable distance.

Modern medicine has devised a variety of methods for determining death. For example, an electroencephalogram can show an absence of electrical activity in the brain and a cardiac monitor can verify the absence of efficient electrical activity in the heart. Core temperature recorders also can reveal a drop in core body temperature below that found in a living person. Angiography and certain brain scans also can confirm that no blood is circulating in the brain. When the death occurs outside the hospital setting, the typical guidelines for determining that death has occurred include: 1) more than five minutes have elapsed since the person's last breath, and 2) the person has no pulse.



Bondeson, Jan. Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.

Iserson, Kenneth. Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies? Tucson: Galen Press, 1994.

Taylor, Troy. Beyond the Grave. Decatur, Ill.: Whitechapel Press, 2001.

Tebb, William, and Edward Vollum. Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented. London: S. Sonnenschein, 1896.

Web sites "A Fate Worse Than Death." 〈〉 (accessed February 5, 2005).

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