In the early 1800s it became quite popular, in parts of Europe, to build large buildings in which the bodies of the recently dead were left to rot for three or four days before burial. These were known as waiting mortuaries.

Culturally specific syndromes are disorders that are specific to a certain culture -- usually psychological disorders, such as Southeast Asian fear of koro, or the Indian Dhat Syndrome. We might add anorexia nervosa and bulimia to the list, and we can certainly find other Western abnormalities that we might want to include. One that should certainly be mentioned is the wave of taphophobia, the fear of being buried alive, that hit Europe and North America in the early 1800s.

Back in the olden days, there was no good way to tell for certain that a person was dead (assuming that they 'died' of sickness or anoxia; those that died violent deaths could often be declared dead with a great level of certainty). A weak heartbeat and a low rate of respiration might easily be missed before the invention of the modern stethoscope, and there were stories of 'corpses' reanimating on the doctor's table, during the funeral, or in some cases, even after burial (the philosopher John Duns Scotus was said to have been found in his tomb, outside his coffin with his hands bloody from his attempts to escape). Perhaps the first physical manifestation of this fear was a coffin designed for Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick in 1792, which had a window, an air tube, and a set of escape keys placed in a special interior pocket. Later designs tended to be more simple, and cheaper, fit for use by the middle classes; for example, Bateson's Belfry was designed with a bell-pull so that the interred could ring a bell on the surface -- in hopes that they could be dug up before suffocating.

Perhaps the most impressive result of the wave of taphophobia was the construction of waiting mortuaries. Is was generally accepted (correctly) that the best way to know if someone was really dead was to leave them above-ground until they started to rot. This could be a great inconvenience for families and doctors who did not want a corpse taking up room in their home or office. A waiting mortuary is exactly what it sounds like -- a mass-production type solution for corpse putrification. Those who were presumed recently deceased could be set out to wake up (or not) at a leisurely pace. This was a great improvement over other services, which claimed to be be able to test for death through repeated and prolonged tongue-pulling, various enemas, or causing severe and sudden pain (I am not making this up. Not even the tongue-pulling).

Waiting mortuaries were particularly popular in Germany, although they could also be found in France, the Netherlands, and some other European countries. They never appeared in England or America, or Italy or Spain for that matter. This was not for lack of spirited debate -- there were some heated arguments as to whether they were a necessary humanitarian aid or a waste of public funds. The first one was built in Prague in 1797, and by the 1830s they were apparently quite common in Germany. This is in large part due to the support of Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland, a highly respected German physician and humanitarian who threw his support behind the widespread construction of these buildings. Other countries never got onto the bandwagon to the same extent that Germany did, although there are reports that there were public riots in Lisbon, Portugal when demands to construct waiting mortuaries were not met. Apparently these protests were successful, as Lisbon did indeed house at least one waiting mortuary by 1837.

These mortuaries could be quite large, although a few dozen beds sufficed for most towns. Each one had rows of beds for the dead, and employed attendants to monitor the corpses for signs of life. This monitoring could involve taking a feather from bed to bed, holding it in front of mouths and watching of signs of breathing, but the most common system appears to have been for the undead living to announce their presence by means of ringing a bell. In some cases the bells were actually tied to the corpses, so any movement would ring them, but this resulted in a high number of false positives as shiftings and settlings of the body could cause the bell to ring. It was common to simply leave the bell-pull in a convenient location in case the dead should revive enough to pull it. Later on some establishments installed electrical press-button bells, much akin to doorbells.

These buildings were not solely for the use of the upper and middle classes, but when the rabble were admitted they were often segregated. Males and females were also housed separately, and sometimes others, such as those who had committed suicide, would be given a separate area. This was apparently for the benefit of those who awakened; the dead were generally left to lie for at least 36 hours, with the result that these buildings stank, and visitors were few.

By the 1850s it was becoming apparent that this medical breakthrough was not going to catch on in some of the leading European countries, and doubt started to spread. If so much of the civilized world could turn down the waiting mortuaries, were the Germans over-reacting a bit? The waiting mortuaries were smelly, often unsanitary places. They were often maintained at the cost, and on the premises, of local churches, and the clergy was quickly becoming disenchanted with the mess and smell. And although supporters often gave glowing reports of the lives saved by these mortuaries, these reports proved to be unverifiable. In fact, we have no reliable record of even one life being saved through use of these buildings. In 1898 the last waiting mortuary in Munich was shut down, although a few German hospitals kept electronic push-button systems in working order until the 1940s in the forlorn hope that someday someone would ring. Some of the original buildings still remain, although all have been re-purposed, some as more traditional mortuaries.

Buried alive: the terrifying history of our most primal fear By Jan Bondeson. _
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

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