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SLOAN COLUMN: When I die, please be dead certain

on Monday, 25 October 2021. Posted in Letters to the Editor

Bob  Sloan Editor

Someone recently shared with me the origin of the phrase “saved by the bell.” Granted, there is some question as to the authenticity of this explanation, but I found it rather interesting. In the spirit of the Halloween season, I ‘d like to share it with you now.

Did you know that in the early 1500s and 1600s it was common – well, far more common that it is today anyway – to bury someone alive. The primary reason for this is probably medical technology. Back then they did not have the advancements that we presently enjoy. It was unusual, but not all that unusual, for someone who had fallen into a comatose state to be presumed dead.

Before modern medicine many of the ways used to confirm death were fairly subjective. Pricking someone with a pin, holding a mirror or other small shiny object under their nose to see if their breath would fog it, or even scalding their finger with boiling water were all tests used to check for signs of life.

By the late 1700s many European countries had changed their laws to recommend not burying someone until 24-48 hours had passed. The person, dead or presumed dead, would be placed on a table and watched for a day or two while the family mourned. This is where the term “wake” originated. I wonder if any wagering took place in these funeral parlors.

Shortly after death was “confirmed,” the person presumed dead would be eulogized and planted six feet under where they would presumably rest in peace. The problem arose that not everyone who was buried rested all that peacefully. There are numerous reported cases of bodies being exhumed. Once the coffin was opened, a terrified look was found frozen on the corpse’s face and claw marks on either side of the coffin. Being buried alive has got to be near the top of most everyone’s “I don’t want to go out that way” list.

To resolve this most serious problem, someone invented the “safety coffin.” These coffins would come equipped with a string attached to a bell and sometimes a breathing tube. Someone unintentionally buried alive could pull the string in the coffin to ring a bell at topside. A passerby hearing the bell ring would then notify cemetery officials of the grave error they had made.

And thus, the phrase “saved by the bell” was coined. Some think the phrase “dead ringer” originated in the same manner.

Interesting, huh? Well I’m not finished.

After the “safety coffins” were introduced, cemeteries began hiring people to stay up all night in the cemetery listening for the ringing bells of the living dead. We now refer to those who work all night as having the, you guessed it, “graveyard shift.

” There are tons of stories about people being buried alive, but many of them are not verified or are simply an old wives’ tale. This one regarding the late Octavia Smith Hatcher is verified as being 100 percent true.

“In 1889, Octavia Smith married a wealthy Kentuckian named James Hatcher. The newlyweds had a son whom they named Jacob. However, infant mortality rates being what they were in the late 1800s, Jacob died in infancy.

Losing her son put Octavia in a deep depression, and she was bedridden for several months. During this time, she also began showing signs of a mysterious illness.

“Eventually, her body entered a coma-like state, and nobody could awaken her. She was pronounced dead in May of 1891 – just four months after Jacob’s death.

“It was an unusually hot May that year, and so Octavia was buried quickly (embalming was not yet common practice.) But a few days later, others in the town began falling into a similar coma-like sleep with shallow breathing patterns- only to awaken a few days later. They discovered it was an illness caused by the bite of the tsetse fly.

“Fearing that she had been buried alive, James panicked and had Octavia exhumed, thinking she might awaken. She had, but James was too late.

Octavia’s coffin was airtight. He found the coffin lining had been shredded and Octavia’s fingernails were bloody. On her face was frozen a contorted shriek of terror.

“A traumatized James re-buried Octavia and erected a lifelike monument of her that sits in the cemetery she rests in. Historian Jessica Forsyth notes that James went on to develop a severe phobia of being buried alive.

” Who wouldn’t, right? And the fear of being buried alive, in case you are wondering, is taphophobia.

I think I’m going to ask someone to do me one last favor at my funeral: Give my coffin a good swift quick and listen for a screech. You can never be too careful, you know.

Contact Editor Bob Sloan at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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