The Not-so-greatful Dead by Nigel Roth


No Man’s Land, the legendary London burial ground of 17th century plague victims, is no longer a legend.


Excavations for unwieldy and potentially useless rail links uncovered the site, and with it the possibility of an even better scientific understanding of the origin of the plague’s nasty bacterium, yersinia pestis, another piece of the macabre Black Death puzzle.

There is, however, one piece of that puzzle we’ll never know.


We know that the plague swept through neighborhoods with lightning speed, we know victims were covered in horrendous boils and sores, and decayed rapidly each day, and we know that those who perished were thrown as quickly as possible onto death carts as they trundled along on their macabre tour.


What we don’t know is how many people were heaved onto that wagon with breath still in their lungs, and blood muddling through their wretched bodies, whimpering for rescue or begging in silent prayer for a rapid demise.


We’re suffering a huge pandemic at the moment, and, with the exception of the US where no-one is sick at all anymore, we’re all sharply aware of how close we are to that metaphorical death cart.


Just as prostitution is the oldest profession, coming back to life is the oldest trick.

From the Bible to Narnia (a very short hop), from Casper to zombie apocalypses (somewhat further), life rarely ceases in the mythology of our sad and painfully-mortal existence. And, as crazy as resurrection seems, death is apparently more transient than we realized.


Death may be a joke to the Idle, but to some people it is a veritable challenge, and one which they inevitably rose to.


Consider the 13th century philosopher John Duns Scotus, born in 1266 in Scotland, died November 8, 1308 in Cologne, maybe. For when he was disinterred one sunny afternoon (we may never know why) he was found with his hands blood-soaked and shredded to the bone with his desperate attempt to escape his premature tomb.

Doubtful that religious beliefs played a part in that example, but they often can, either explaining the phenomena or embroidering a cloak of spectral afterlife. It's called the Lazarus Effect, and it's everywhere.


China has its share of Lazari. Take the case of Peng Xiuhua, who suddenly opened her eyes at her own funeral. Her two daughters, who stood to inherit her worldly goods, had declared their mum very dead, that is until she looked up, smiled, and said ni hao.

Or, Li Xiufeng, who lay in her coffin for six whole days when she suddenly jumped up, punched the air, clambered out of her box, and asked anyone still standing for a stiff drink.


In Russia we have the case of Fagilyu Mukhametzyanov, a woman who lays dead of an unpronounceable surname. On hearing the mourners’ final dirge, she screamed in terror giving herself a fatal heart attack, and so becoming one of the few people to die at their own funeral.


Possibly the scariest of all these real-life horror stories is the one that involves Carlos Camejo of Venezuela.


Camejo died in a highway accident that was deemed to require an autopsy. I’m sure you know what’s coming next. Half-way through the post-mortem, and possibly right in the middle of one of those dreams where you think your teeth are falling out, Camejo awoke. Medical examiners quickly sewed up the blood-gushing gash in his face, popped his internal organs back in as best they could, and he was good to go. He wears his heart on his sleeve now, which seems a small price to pay for a life that was so nearly snatched away.


Science has now proven why this sometimes happens, and include very soft heartbeats, less than hearing-abled examiners, and the state of the body called asystole, where no pulse or electrical activity can be detected, as explanations.

Before science intervened though, inventions flooded the market to try to prevent these ghastly episodes.


A German priest and inventor called Pessler, thought a bell attached to a string fed through a tube from the coffin interior to his sweaty paw might do the trick. His equally inventive colleague, Beck, thought his nose a more adequate detector of a rotting corpse, (or, more importantly, a ‘non-rotting’ corpse) and planned to sniff-out death with his evening Lemberger.


Some bright spark also invented a coffin with windows where an obviously putrefying corpse could be ‘trap-doored’ into the grave, or a fresh-as-the-daisies one could be rescued tout suite with a pair of salad tongs. Even today you can buy a safety coffin which provides a “two-way intercom, flashlight, oxygen tank, defibrillator and emergency connection to a monitoring station.”


Luckily these tales are few and far between, and although they are global in occurrence, they are seldom seen in the US (where there is no pandemic, by the way).

This could be due to better medical training, or faster morticians. Or it could be because the difference between being dead and alive in the US is often so very difficult to detect in the first place.

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