It’s hard to die fearing that you may not be dead after all when you are buried. Knowing it happened a lot in the past, that fear was very real. There were no absolutely certain ways to distinguish coma and deep trances from death.

Even now it happens that people who are marked for donating their organs, wake up on the operating table. Which is a fact that should warn us to be more careful with the ‘dead’ before we cut them open in favor of somebody else.

There are many books on all the gadgets that were designed to help the reviving dead man alerting the living of his plight. Even ropes attached to church bells were proposed, but never used, I think, since pulling a rope in a tight space must be exhausting. One is not ‘dead’ for nothing, there must have been a reason, health wise.

In Spiritualistic and medical literature there’s a lot about being dead, or rather: not being dead in spite of being dead. People in the 19th Century were living with death all the time, and it was not exceptional if only a few children survived in a large family. Spiritualism was a great comfort for many; it took the sting out of grief. Nevertheless, all people cling to life, and the idea of ending up and suffocating six feet under when one could still have lived for many years was horrible.

And since the Victorian age was an inventive as well as a bizarre one, many scientists were scratching their heads on the problem. Although there were laws already in the 18th century to leave the dead alone for three days before burying them , there remained a nagging doubt. Some people really woke up in the coffin at the last moment, and sometimes that waking up happened when already in the ground. In case of epidemics those three days often became a few hours, with all the risks involved. So people kept searching for that one method that left no room for doubt.

Here are two of those, both found in ‘Het Toekomstig Leven’ a Dutch Spiritualistic magazine, founded in 1897.  The first one was an idea from Dr Icard from Marseille. His solution was a solution: Fluorescein. I translate part of it: 

“Knowing the difference between apparent death and real death has been a grave problem for ages, and it still is. But now there has been found a way to determine which is which, and this solution has been rewarded a prize by the Academy of Paris (around 1900)”

I googled this Dr Icard, not expecting to find him, but lo and behold, his idea is still around, and on a modern French medical site about the signs of death I found mention of ‘le methode d’Icard’. Popular Mechanics (no date) says this:

Although physicians assert that the possibility of being buried alive can only occur where a medical examination has not been made, German papers state that a stronger, absolutely reliable guaranty for discerning actual death is still demanded. The discovery of a new modium for ascertaining death with perfect certainty will, therefore, attract attention. It consists in injecting a solution of fluorescine deep into the tissues. If circulation exists the skin and mucous membranes become very yellow and the eyes assume the color of emeralds; if the circulation has ceased, none of these results occur. The discoverer, Dr. Icard, pro-poses that at least two hours before bodies are place in coffins such an injection with fluorescine be made. If life is not yet extinct the injection does no harm and the coloring disappears.

Tears and saliva are taking on a grass green color, and so are the eyes. But only when there is still circulation, and the dead person is not that dead after all.

Another, more radical way to decide whether someone is really dead is even more interesting. In 1902 a German gentleman by the name of von Knopstück-Rowel wrote a brochure of 16 pages, inspired by an organisation that promoted better protection against being buried alive.

Het Toekomstig Leven of August 1902 has this to say: “A really remarkable brochure was written in Germany. Tod den Scheintode! Although the writer has the objective to spare the apparent dead the horrors of being buried alive, his method to ascertain death, when every other method to bring them back to the living has failed, is violent: kill the apparent dead, put the light out, all that still lives and breathes, out!

Very efficient, no doubt. But killing is punishable, and based on the presupposition that almost dead people don’t hear or feel anything.”

And now we have organ transplants with organs from still living people, by the standard of Dr Icard. Although hopefully no still living persons are buried or cremated (!) I’m not so sure we take better care of our almost dead than we did a century ago.