I don’t mean to start the week out with such morbid musings, but have you ever thought about it? It seems to have especially been on the minds of folks in the nineteenth century. Who knows – it might have been a Victorian thing, except it spilled well over into the next century it appears.
In search of stories to write I often run across interesting phrases that are used repeatedly – like “saved by her corset” (I will write a story on that one day!) and the one I researched last week: “own funeral”. A search at one newspaper archive site yielded a result of over thirteen thousand articles containing the phrase.
I found the phrase used quite often when referring to someone’s political missteps. It might refer to a one-time high and mighty fellow making a less-than-inspiring speech or taking an unpopular stand – he was attending his “own funeral” – as in his political career was kaput.
Then, there were the unfortunate folks who either “attended their own funeral” because they were thought to be dead but were in fact not (surprise!), or someone mis-identified a dead body. In that case, often the supposed dead person would walk in on the funeral proceedings and create quite a stir.
In the case of those thought to be dead, placed in a coffin and brought to their funeral, here are a few examples:
There was a woman named Lucinda Neely of Jeffersonville, Indiana who became ill one day in 1884 and within two hours was pronounced dead, heart disease brought on by asthma thought to be the cause. She died on Thursday evening and the funeral was set for Sunday morning. Many people attended and after the funeral sermon was preached her friends gathered around the coffin for one last look at her face. Someone suddenly noticed something startling and called others over to take a look. They began to whisper, “she is not dead.” The funeral proceedings were immediately stopped. “It appears that just as the coffin-lid was about to be placed over the face of the corpse a flush as of a person in a desperate struggle for life rose from her neck and overspread chin, cheek, and brow.”1
In 1887 a young black South Carolinian woman was thought to have died following a long illness. Her body was prepared for burial and placed in a coffin. That night her neighbors and friends held a wake. A funeral was to follow with burial in a distant cemetery. As the pallbearers were walking along en route to the funeral, someone heard a cry emanating from inside the coffin. Immediately the procession was halted and the coffin opened. To everyone’s shock and surprise the young woman was indeed alive, just unconscious – AND there was a newborn baby laying beside its mother. Several people fled the scene while others remained and took care of the woman and her newborn. Both were taken to a neighbor’s house – the mother recovered and her baby was in good health and thriving.2
“Great excitement” was caused by a young lady suddenly returned to life after being “dead” for four days. In October of 1883 in Black River Falls, Wisconsin the daughter of a wealthy German had died following a long illness. Her body was prepared for burial, although some expressed fears she did not appear dead. Nevertheless, four days later the funeral was held. While the minister was speaking he noticed her face and asked if the services might be interrupted to attempt resuscitation. “This was done, and he succeeded so well that the woman arose in the coffin with a terrible shriek. The scene which followed beggars description. Men turned pale with horror, women fainted and it was a long time before anything like quiet was restored.”3
This one from 1893 is quite unbelievable as it was reported a young man was coffined for eleven days. During that time he heard his own funeral sermon, but was later taken from the coffin (further details weren’t provided in the news article as to what prompted the removal) and placed in night clothes and laid in bed. There were no signs of decomposition and he did have a faint pulse. Doctors believed he would fully recover.4
There was a Frenchman who had fallen into a kind of lethargy which caused him to be pronounced dead. His funeral was scheduled and as his coffin was being borne to the service, pallbearers heard a noise from the coffin. They dropped the coffin, some ran but some approached the coffin and opened it carefully. To their great amazement they saw the “dead man rise, rub his eyes and thank his friends for their services, which, he said, he no longer required. The shock was such, however, at witnessing his own funeral, that he only survived two hours after waking up.” He died after all.5
In 1894 the namesake nephew of author Washington Irving was presumed to have died in Escondido, California. However, just as the funeral service was closing his friends heard a knocking within the coffin. The lid was quickly removed and young Irving arose, dazed, but soon regained his senses and was taken home.6
These stories remind me of a Far-Out Friday article I wrote awhile back – “This Might Have Been a Victorian Thing (Get Me Out of Here, I’m Not Dead!)“. People of that era seemed to be obsessed, perhaps overly so, with death. Many people decided to hold their funerals before death so they could hear what others thought about them. There are many, many stories about preachers who decided to preach their own funeral sermon… more about those later in another related article or two.
Charles Finney thought it quite a good idea to be present to hear one’s own funeral sermon, as expressed in 1858 during a Boston sermon on “moral honesty”:
“Go down on State street, gather together all the moral honesty there is to be found there, give it a thorough sifting, and what a mournful spectacle would turn up to view!? He further discourses on funeral sermons: “I wish sometimes people could attend their own funerals. Could some men hear their eulogies pronounced upon their characters for moral honesty, after their death, how they would shriek and howl as they law in their coffins!”
I found an interesting follow-up to one of the stories I came across. His was not exactly a happy ending, although he did survive his almost-being-buried-alive experience. Tune in tomorrow for a unique Tombstone Tuesday article about the man who “died twice”.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2015.