Why is it so difficult to write about the history of death? Everyone in history is dead. Choose any character! And what is more interesting to historians of medicine than stories about preventing that thing we all do: dying? Naturally there are some topics that are of equal interest, such as the business of birth, living, living poorly, living well, living long, prospering. Yet there is something about the history of how humans have gone about dying that fascinates pretty much all of us.
Culture to culture, the basics get done differently. Era to era, or epoch to epoch, the same remains true. Why the Japanese Samurai performance of seppuku or harakiri (ritual suicide) emerged in approximately 1180 A.D. is a completely different type of question than why the Mayans were heavily into blood sacrifice, and did curious things, like baking blood into loaves of bread for consumption and making untoward apocalyptic predictions for the people of 2012. Taking a look at a set of instructions or a ritual from any place and time can reveal a veritable necromancer’s treasure trove.
Take Philadelphia, 1791, for example: a pretty exciting place, with the gun-powder residue of revolution still hanging over the city, and just before the crippling yellow fever epidemic that purged the city of souls in the summer of 1793. In October of 1791, right in the middle of intermittent fever season, an article appeared in a local paper entitled Premature Deaths. No, not the obituary column where you find grand tales of life-long love, accomplishment, and newly available rent controlled apartments, but rather a set of instructions recommended by the Humane Society for restoring life. Humane Societies had a mission: artificial resuscitation was a new fad in 1791. Believe it or not, until 1769, people didn’t have any practical information about restoring the apparently dead. They had the wherewithal, undoubtedly, but they also had a lot of faith in “God’s plan”, whatever bitterness that might bring. Well into the 19th century, the only certain way to tell if so-and-so was dead was by identifying putrefaction. For those of you who are post-mortem savvy, we’ll start with the smell and from there progress to decomposition and the sure presence of maggots.
In fact, this inconvenient uncertainty about when you could precisely call a person dead, led to nearly two centuries of popular obsession with premature burial in both the United States and Europe. Individuals would request to be buried in concrete reinforced coffins inside iron cages with an internal bell that they could ring should they wake up six feet under. The prison-like accoutrements? To prevent grave-robbing which was a shadow industry supplying nascent anatomy programs with bits and pieces to study until the passage of the Anatomy Act in the 1830s. The names Burke and Hare might be familiar here. They were the infamous grave-robbers who eventually started murdering people for their bodies in Edinburgh during the 1830s until they were caught and hanged. Burke, regrettably, was flayed and turned into various human-leather products, such as book covers and money purses (one of which you can see at the Edinburgh Royal College of Surgeons Museum, a must for any historian of medicine or enthusiast of medical curiosities).
Premature burial was a one-trick pony, but premature death on the other hand was a category of being (or not-being) that spread far and wide, generating supernatural experiences for the most ordinary of Americans. Spiritualism, or the practice of holding seances to communicate with the dead was not present in the American consciousness until the 1850s. In that decade the Fox sisters in upstate New York started hearing rappings and knockings in their house and invented the practice of spirit-rapping to deal with the problem. Before that, people had a whole range of experiences that brought them into proximity with the after-life, see the future, know the unknown, and generally impress the living daylights out of everyone who encountered them performing their talents.
Premature death was also something newly preventable. In cases of “seeming death” a passer-by or concerned citizen could actually do something. The recourses available to remedy death might raise an eyebrow today, but are in fact the stem of the modern technologies we take for granted in hospitals and paramedics’ tote bags. For example, if you had a non-putrified person who was essentially unresponsive and showed none of the obvious signs of life, the Humane Society recommended everything from rolling said person in a barrel, to slathering them with rum and shocking them with an electro-static generator. The better-off towns would typically have a centrally located generator, a bit like the defibrillators we see in public places today.
But how was one supposed to avoid premature death in the first place? The Humane Society had recommendations for that too. Even now they appear quite sensible, and if translated into modern terms, would be taken for granted as common knowledge. But public safety campaigns were not always there. Private citizens created messages of public safety, disseminated sage advice, and made sure to reward those who practiced it. The cautions a sensible person was implored to observe are broadly as follows:
1. Be sober.
2. Be sober on horseback
3. Don’t fight, unless it’s for your country.
4. Be careful around water, not afraid of it.
5. If you feel bad, be positive and talk to a friend.
6. Keep your wells covered extremely well.
7. Fill up arbitrary holes.
8. Level uneven ground
9. Beware of gravel-anches.
10. Seal your poisons.
11. Keep loaded guns in safe places, don’t play with them, and never leave gun powder open and exposed.
12. Don’t stand under trees or lightning rods in thunder storms.
13. Watch the children
14. Watch for “damps” or suffocating agents while in caves.
15. If you get giddy making moonshine, take a walk around the block.
16. Never sleep near charcoal.
17. When numbed by cold, rub your body with snow and don’t fall asleep outdoors in the winter.
18. Don’t lay out a corpse until it’s dark in color and has that dead smell; do not bury until the doctors tell you to.
Our situations have changed since the late 18th century, but the message of preserving life has remained remarkably consistent since it became socially desirable to restore the apparently dead back to life. And really, folks, is there anything else we need to know?
Kristen Keerma Friedman is….