A Change of Heart

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wiertz_burial.jpg

A soldier of the 93d regiment, quartered in the barracks, was looked upon to be dead, and after having been laid out in the usual way during two days, was conveyed to the place of interment (St. Nicholas’s churchyard) on yesterday evening, when, on lowering the body into the grave, the soldiers assisting heard the noise of struggling in the coffin, and on examination found the man whom they were in the act of burying, endeavouring with his hands and knees to force up the lid. To their great surprise they found their comrade still alive, and conveyed him home in the open coffin. This should prove an additional warning against premature interment.

Courier, June 13, 1815

Unquiet Slumbers

Pity Lal Bihari: In 1976 the Indian farmer applied for a bank loan and learned he was dead. His uncle had arranged it in order to get control of his land.

This is fairly common in the crowded northern state of Uttar Pradesh, and it creates an odd predicament: If you complain too much about being dead, your enemies might kill you for real.

The struggle led Bihari to make some strangely existential demonstrations. He added the word “dead” to his name, signed his letters as the “late” Lal Bihari, organized his own funeral, and demanded a widow’s compensation for his wife.

Finally he was recalled to life in 1994, after 18 years in the grave. But the “association of the dead” that he founded has now grown to 20,000 members.

“The Fatal Effects of Fear”

One of the officers of Haslar Hospital being dangerously ill, a medical gentleman who was attending him, had occasion, about two o’clock on Saturday morning, the 25th of December, 1814, to send the nurse from the officer’s house to the dispensary; the weather being bad, the nurse wrapped herself round with a piece of red baize, with which she covered, in part, a candle and lantern, to prevent the light from being blown out, as the wind was very high. The rays of light issuing from the red covering, to the imagination of a sentry at a distance, she appeared a terrific spectre; and as she approached him his fear so increased, that he ran from his post with haste to the guard-house, where, in about half an hour, he expired!

Courier, Dec. 28, 1814

Man Down

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/385428

As a newcomer to the NBA in 1974, Atlanta Hawks shooting guard Pete Maravich told a Pennsylvania reporter, “I don’t want to play 10 years and then die of a heart attack when I’m 40.”

After a pickup game in 1988, Maravich suffered a heart attack and died. He was 40 years old.

The Somerton Man

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/477206

On Dec. 1, 1948, a bather discovered a body on the beach near Adelaide, Australia. The man appeared to be European, about 45 years old, well dressed, and in excellent physical condition. Indeed, the coroner could not determine a cause of death. Still more strangely, it seemed the man had carried no money, and all identifying marks had been removed from his clothes. Apparently he had left a suitcase at the Adelaide railway station, but it contained no useful clues. Photos and fingerprints were circulated throughout the English-speaking world, but no one identified him.

And the body bore one last strange clue: In a trouser fob pocket, one of the investigators found a tiny piece of paper bearing the words “Taman Shud.” Those are the final words in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; they mean “The End.” A local doctor came forward with a copy of that book, from which the words had been clipped. He had found it tossed on the front seat of his car the day before the body was found.

But even that clue went nowhere. To this day, no one knows who the man was or how he died. He’s known only as the Somerton man.

Cosmic Irony

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:61-MR4-76.jpg

In 1961, astronaut Gus Grissom nearly drowned after a splashdown when his Mercury capsule opened prematurely. He recommended making the hatch more secure.

Eight years later he died when Apollo 1 caught fire. The hatch had prevented his escape.

Wait a Minute …

When you my friends are passing by,
And this inform you where I lie,
Remember you ere long must have,
Like me, a mansion in the grave,
Also 3 infants, 2 sons and a daughter.

— Tombstone in Pittsfied, Mass., cited in English as She Is Wrote, 1884

Better Safe

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Safetycoffin.jpg

Johann Taberger designed this “safety coffin” in 1829, to preserve people who had been mistakenly buried alive. Strings were attached to the body’s head, hands, and feet, connected to a bell that would alert the cemetery’s nightwatchman, who could use a bellows to pump air into the coffin until it could be dug up.

Such devices were popular during the cholera epidemics of the 18th and 19th centuries — European graves were rigged variously with bells, flags, ladders, and escape hatches. There’s no evidence that they ever saved anyone, and they nearly killed some of their inventors: During a demonstration in 1897, a chamberlain to the tsar of Russia buried his assistant, waited, and finally realized that the signaling system had failed. The assistant was saved, but the marketing campaign was DOA.

Rumors of My Death …

Physicist James Van Allen outlived his own obituary writer.

As Van Allen approached old age, the Associated Press assigned writer Walter Sullivan to prepare a story that could be published on his death. Sullivan did so and died in 1996, but his story sat in the file for 10 more years before Van Allen finally passed away at 91.

Truth in Advertising

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Head-Smashed-In.jpg

Pretty, ain’t it? This 30-meter cliff rises from the foothills of the Rockies in Alberta. For 6,000 years, Native Americans would drive buffalo over the edge; the bone deposits at the bottom are 10 meters deep.

The Blackfoot call this place estipah-skikikini-kots, after a legend about one unfortunate young man who chose to watch the climactic plunge from below. Estipah-skikikini-kots means “Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.”