Being Buried Alive Was So Common in the Victorian Era That Doctors Used these 10 Methods to Prevent It

Plants with thorns would be used to rub over bodies. Pateek.

Rubbing Prickly Bushes Over the Body

Human bodies have fives stages of decomposition: fresh, bloat, active decay, advanced decay, and dry decay. Decomposition is a process that takes place over days to years, depending on the circumstance of one’s death and the conditions the deceased’s body is subjected to. Weather, moisture, temperature, and oxygenation all contribute to how quickly a body decomposes, but all human bodies go through all stages of decomposition.

The body begins the process of breaking down around 4 minutes after death. The initial process of decay is indiscernible to the human eye; the heart has stopped, thusly blood has ceased to flow. Blood is the mechanism by which oxygen is carried to the cells of the body. When death occurs, oxygen ceases to be carried to the cells, and the cells begin to break down. Observations of the corpse a few hours later would allow some indication the person is dead. Rigor mortis, the stiffening of the muscles, can be observed around four hours after death.

Changes in the skin’s appearance are also notable. A pale complexion due to lack of circulation is observable, but even more disturbing are the blisters that appear on both internal organs and the skin’s surface. The blisters were also combined with an eerie sheen across the surface of the skin.

Although the natural process of decay allowed 18th and 19th century doctors and morticians to be fairly certain the bodies they pronounced dead were fit to be buried, doubts lingered still. The doubts led to the creation of The Prix d’Ourches, a macabre contest put forth by the French Academy of Sciences. The Academy announced they would award 20,000 gold francs to whomever invented a foolproof death test. Professor M. Weber, a forensic specialist from Leipzig, Germany, entered the contest with his own testimonial account. Weber had deduced rubbing prickly bushes over certain parts of a corpse’s body would create a parchment like texture. If the texturing was present, the body was sent for burial. Unfortunately, Weber did not win the grand prize. The prize commissioners attempted to replicate Weber’s findings, but found the test unreliable. Weber was awarded 5,000 gold francs and an honorable mention. A deceased body’s complexion will acquire the paper thin sheen Weber observed, and it was likely coincidence his prickly bush experiment was successful.