Alive all the time

Alive all the time

In Brief

As the gravediggers start to bury Paddy Dignam's coffin under "heavy clods of clay," Bloom thinks, "And if he was alive all the time? Whew! By jingo, that would be awful! No, no: he is dead, of course. Of course he is dead. Monday he died. They ought to have some law to pierce the heart and make sure or an electric clock or a telephone in the coffin and some kind of a canvas airhole. Flag of distress." Bloom's alarm, and his proposed remedies, are not peculiar to him. They were a pronounced cultural phenomenon in the Victorian era.

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In his book At Home (2010), Bill Bryson discusses Victorian anxieties about death: "Edgar Allan Poe exploited one particular fear to vivid effect in his story The Premature Burial in 1844" (399-400). (The Cask of Amontillado and The Fall of the House of Usher play on the same phobia.) "Catalepsy, a condition of paralysis in which the victim merely seemed dead while actually being fully conscious, became the dread disease of the day. Newspapers and popular magazines abounded with stories of people who suffered from its immobilizing effects" (400). Bryson recounts the story of a woman who broke out of such a state just as her coffin was about to be buried, and he mentions studies in New York City and London in the second half of the 19th century that unearthed gruesome evidence suggestive of people having died, conscious, inside their coffins.

The morbid fear of suffering this fate became so widespread that it acquired a name, taphephobia or taphophobia (from taphos, grave). People began leaving instructions that their hearts should be removed before burial or their arteries cut open—a practice reflected in Bloom's thought that a law should be passed requiring undertakers "to pierce the heart." Entrepreneurs also began designing "safety coffins" just like the one that Bloom imagines. Bryson describes one model with "a cord, which opened a breathing tube for air and simultaneously set off a bell and started a flag waving at ground level. An Association for Prevention of Premature Burial was established in Britain in 1899 and an American society was formed the following year. Both societies suggested a number of exacting tests to be satisfied by attending physicians before they could safely declare a person dead," such as "holding a hot iron against the deceased's skin" (401).

Reliable evidence is hard to come by, but people were probably buried alive by mistake fairly often before the 20th century, and few human fears are greater. Bloom's train of thought is representative not only of Victorian neuroses and Victorian reformist impulses. It coheres also with the skepticism and sensitive imagination that he displays throughout the cemetery chapter as he refuses to be comforted by the usual bromides and platitudes. And it suggests that his empathetic responses to human and animal suffering do not stop even at the grave's edge. 

JH 2021
The Premature Burial, 1854 oil on canvas painting by Antoine Wiertz. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Franz Vester's Improved Burial-Case, recipient of U.S. Patent no. 81,437 issued on 25 August 1868. Source: Wikimedia Commons.