Is it not rather curious, not to say alarming, that the methods employed by physicians for certifying death in this progressive age are no further forward than they were many centuries ago? The subject of premature burial is naturally a most gruesome one to read about, or to allow the mind to dwell on; but there is absolutely no doubt about this assertion - that owing to the condition of our burial laws, many persons have been buried alive; and even more appalling is the statement that many persons alive now will be buried before life is extinct unless a reform is quickly brought about. It must be confessed that most of us hitherto had imagined that doctors could tell at least when a patient was dead, if they could not always effect a cure. But we were wrong. The indisputable signs of death Prof. Huxley stated to be “an extraordinarily difficult question to decide”; and Sir Henry Thompson has declared that the one really trustworthy proof that death has occurred in any given instant is “the presence of a manifest sign of commencing decomposition.” According to Mr. Basil Tozer, who contributes a long and carefully written article on the subject of premature burial to the Nineteenth Century (London), the “authenticated cases of narrow escape from premature burial that have occurred within even the last few years are more numerous than many readers of this article may feel inclined to believe.” Whatever one may feel inclined to believe, however, must give way before the restrained though alarming statements of the writer, who, “in order to avoid gruesome detail,” alludes to only a few out of the hundreds of cases of premature burial, or of narrow escapes from that ghastly fate of which irrefutable evidence is obtainable.
Without going into details, it is significant to learn that wherever, owing to the gradual expansion of towns, or for any other reason, graveyards have been dug up, unmistakable evidence of premature burial has been revealed, though naturally, says the writer, “all reports of such discoveries have been hushed up so far as possible lest the news should reach the ears of relatives and cause them mental anguish; also many cases, lest the revelations might incriminate the doctors who signed the death certificates.” During May and June, 1896, a doctor who had written on the subject of premature burial, received something like sixty-three letters from persons who escaped premature burial through fortunate accidents. And cases obtained from medical sources alone, mentioned in a recent volume on the subject, include 219 narrow escapes from being buried alive; 149 premature interments that actually took place, ten cases of bodies being dissected before life was extinct; three cases in which this mistake was very nearly made; and two cases where the work of embalmment was begun before life was extinct.
“And yet with these figures before us,” says the writer, “and with an average in the United Kingdom of only two disinterments out of every 100,000 bodies buried, we are told quite cheerfully by optimistic apologist that the burial laws are all that they ought to be, and that the inquisitive who wish to satisfy themselves that this really is so are merely “cranks,” “faddists,” “busybodies,” “alarmists,” and so on, while cases of premature burial are so rare - so they maintain - as to be practically non-existent.”
Even the Undertakers’ Journal periodically printed accounts of cases of premature burials and narrow escapes therefrom, the editor in one issue remarking that, “it has been proved beyond all contradiction that there are more burials alive than is generally supposed,” It is gratifying and comforting to know that a bill has now been drawn up for presentation to the British Parliament, for prevention of premature burial. “among the provisions of this bill are the powers given to sanitary authorities “to provide waiting mortuaries where bodies are to be kept until the fact of death is conclusively ascertained.”