Dead and buried… for now: The misdiagnosis of death in enlightenment England

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Southern New Hampshire University
While the concept of the misdiagnosis of death resulting in premature burial sounds like a theme from Hollywood, it was a real circumstance that took place in Western Europe from antiquity through the nineteenth century. Specifically focusing on the England in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, stories of people who had been prematurely diagnosed as dead, prematurely set into their coffin for viewing, and prematurely committed to the grave have been well documented within medical texts, academic books, art, and newspapers articles from the time. These sorts of publications showcased societies awareness of people were being misdiagnosed as dead committed to the earth alive. In response, scholarly physicians began to identify the stages of death with the intent of properly diagnosing people, and only committing those who were absolutely dead to their final resting places. This research is unique to the field in several ways. First, it presents an awareness of premature burial by academic physicians and draws the connection between the problem and the response of the medical community to identify the transitional stages of – and define – death. It focuses on the societal awareness of the misdiagnosis of death, how awareness was obtained, and what was done to help rectify the issue in both the academic medical community and by the public at large. Finally, this thesis presents the first modern statistic comparing the prevalence of premature burial as reported in England. One hundred and fifty-five (155) cases of apparent death and the subsequent premature repercussions (enclosure, burial, interment, or dissection) that had occurred in western Europe and America during the eighteenth century were analyzed in order to create this statistic. These cases were reported in primary and early secondary sources in England. This statistic was then compared against the two hypotheses published in England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Specifically, this modern statistic was contrasted against the hypothesized 10% – 50% of people being buried prematurely in western Europe, as reported by Dr. Samuel Glasse in 1789, and the 10% of people being prematurely buried in England, as reported by Dr. John Snart in 1817. (Author abstract)