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News & Views of Phillips Since 1976
Thursday June 20th 2024

Casper”'s Ghost says, “”˜People were dying to get into the cemetery.”' But were they really dead?”

The Original Gated Cedar Avenue Entrance to Pioneers and Soldiers Cemtery The wooden gates that was replaced by the current limestone pillars and steel gates. Photo is undated but had to have been taken in the early 1900s since the “new” gate was erected in 1928. Notice the streetcar tracks.

by Sue Hunter Weir

Casper Link was terrified of being buried alive, and he was not the only one. There is a word for this fear””taphophobia””meaning the fear of graves. Mr. Link died on Sunday, July 21, 1872, but not before his wife and friends promised that they would not bury him until three days after he had been declared dead. Mrs. Link arranged for a funeral service, though not a burial, to take place on the day after her husband died. During the service, Mr. Link”'s worst fears appeared to have been realized when one of the people in attendance noticed what he thought was perspiration on Mr. Link”'s forehead. The funeral service was brought to an abrupt halt and a doctor was summoned. The doctor examined Mr. Link one last time and concluded, yet again, that he was dead. The funeral service continued as planned, and Mr. Link”'s body was taken to the cemetery where it was stored in the vault until the promised three days had passed. Throughout, his wife held out hope that her husband was not dead but was merely “sleeping.” But that was not the case, and after the specified time elapsed, Mr. Link was buried in Lot 33, Block P.

Mr. Link”'s fears were not uncommon. There may well have been a small number of people who were buried before their time, but the exact number of cases will never be known. Stories about “premature burials” appeared in the papers from time to time, often enough to keep a fair number of people alarmed about the possibility. The stories were memorable, including accounts from witnesses who said that they heard knocking sounds or voices coming from inside of coffins. This led some of those who could afford it to buy “security coffins” which had glass windows on the lids. There were stories, mostly from Europe, of people whose coffins had holes drilled in the lids so that strings that were attached to their fingers could ring an above-ground bell that would alert the sexton that a quick exhumation was in order. Other coffins were reported to have air pipes that extended from the coffin to the grave”'s surface so that those who were buried too soon would be able to breathe until they were rescued.

Although many of these stories read like urban legends, they flourished at a time when there was no agreement among doctors about how to determine whether someone was actually dead. Most agreed that if a person had not drawn a breath in a specified period of time, they could be considered dead, but determining that without the benefits of our modern technology was not always a straightforward matter. Determining whether someone was brain dead was even more difficult. Doctors had no way of measuring brain activity, and the word “coma” was not yet part of their medical vocabulary. Instead, people who showed no signs of consciousness were considered to be in a state of “suspended animation.” A small number of those people apparently regained consciousness after they had been declared dead. The number of reports may have been small, but there were enough of them to reinforce peoples”' fears about being buried alive.

An editorial in the Minneapolis Tribune proposed a solution that was intended to calm people”'s fears. The editors argued in favor of a law that would make it illegal to bury anyone who had not been dead for at least 72 hours. That didn”'t solve the problem, however. Absent obvious signs of decomposition, there was nothing about a 72-hour limit that offered any absolute proof of death. The number of hours was arbitrary, although Mr. Link seemed to have shared the editors”' faith in that number. The proposed law also created new problems. In the event that someone was buried alive, who would be prosecuted? The doctor? The undertaker? The desire to have absolute answers to questions that had no science to back them up was not fulfilled. No law, like the one proposed, was ever passed.

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