Most people don’t think about what it would feel like to be dying all too often, it’s depressing and no one wants to dwell on it. However, it’s stories like the one below that really get you to wonder what death would feel like, especially under the horrific circumstances the people below went through. It’s something straight out of a horror film.
A young woman, Mary Best, was only 17-years-old when she contracted cholera in India. She suffered all alone, her adoptive mother left the country a few months prior, hours of agonizing stomach cramps and sickness, Mary’s pulse got weaker and weaker until, at last, the doctor pronounced her dead.
A few short hours later she was buried in her family’s vault, in the French cemetery in Calcutta.
Unfortunately for Mary, it was 1871 when she passed, and cholera victims were generally buried as quick as possible after death to prevent the germs spreading. In India’s tropical heat, a rapid burial was even more necessary. Not a soul questioned Mary’s hasty coffin imprisonment.
But ten years later, when the vault was opened to admit the body of Mary’s newly deceased uncle by adoption, the undertaker and his assistant were greeted by a horrifying sight.
The lid of Mary’s coffin, which had been nailed down, was on the floor. The girl’s skeleton was half in, half out of the coffin, and the right side of her skull bore a large, ugly fracture. The fingers of her right hand were bent as if clutching at something, perhaps her throat and her clothes were torn.
Mary, it seemed, had not been dead when she was nailed into a coffin, but merely unconscious.
Cholera victims frequently fell into a coma, and it was in this state that Mary had been buried. Some hours or days later she awoke with no idea where she was.
The utter terror she endured, her futile screams for help, can barely be imagined. Then, realizing she was not being heard, she tried desperately to push the coffin lid off. Straining every muscle, she eventually burst it open.
Perhaps the effort was so great that she fell forward, through exhaustion or fainting, and struck her head on the stone shelf, dying instantly.
More likely, however, finding herself in the pitch darkness of the vault, Mary went mad with terror, tore at her clothes, tried to throttle herself, then banged her head and died.
It transpired that the doctor who had certified her death had much to gain by her demise, having twice tried to kill Mary’s adoptive mother — perhaps in an attempt to get his hands on her money — which was why she had fled India. Mary might even have witnessed his actions.
As horrifying as her fate was, from Victorian times on down through history it was not as unusual as one might imagine. Medicine hadn’t come very far until the 20th century, methods used to determine death were nowhere near reliable. Sometimes assessing a person’s death was as simple as applying hot bread to the soles of the feet to check for reactions.
Many were so terrified of the thought of waking up in a coffin, they drew up their wills demanding that steps be taken after their ‘death’ —such as slitting their throat, or plunging a stake through their heart, to prevent this horrific fate.
Perhaps the most disturbing cases were the victims who came tantalizingly close to being saved, only for the fear or incompetence of the living to seal their cold dark fate.
In 1887, in France, a young man was being carried to his grave when the undertakers heard knocking from under the coffin lid.
Afraid of creating a panic among the mourners, they proceeded with the burial. But as the earth was being thrown on the coffin, everyone heard the knocking.
Rather than remove the lid, they waited for the mayor to come. By the time he arrived and the coffin was opened, the man inside had died of asphyxiation.
Sometimes people who tried to prevent what they feared was a premature burial were dismissed as being mad with grief and unable to accept the reality of death.
In 1851 Virginia Macdonald, a girl living in New York, was buried after falling ill, despite her mother’s insistence that her daughter was not dead. The family tried to reassure the hysterical woman but to no avail, so they eventually had the body disinterred.
They found the deceased girl lying on her side, her hands badly bitten. It seemed she had woken in her coffin and begun eating her hands, either in terror or hunger.
Similarly, in 1903, a 14-year-old boy was buried in France, having been forcibly removed from his mother who protested that he was not dead. The day after his funeral she was found digging in the earth with her bare hands, trying to reach the coffin. The coffin was duly opened and the boy found inside, his body twisted from trying to break out: he had died from suffocation.
While some did narrowly escape from the underground tomb, they ended up being so badly traumatized that they never recovered.
Officials have said that it’s possible in some cases, what were assumed to be signs of frantic attempts to escape were caused by the natural process of putrefaction or rigor mortis.
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