It is the stuff of nightmares and horror movies. A woman in India was declared dead of a lung infection, taken quickly to the ghats, and cremated a few hours after death. But bystanders, believing she was still alive, dragged her off the pyre and an autopsy showed soot in her windpipe and lungs that could not have gotten there if she had been dead. Yet the doctors at the hospital where she died who certified her death were certain she was dead. The case is complicated by allegations of rape, murder, and property disputes; DNA and other forensic testing has been ordered, but it is unlikely the truth will come out any time soon.
If, indeed, the poor woman was burned alive on her funeral pyre, it was not the first time for such a horror. I have previously written about burial alive, something dreaded by the Victorians perhaps even more than they feared the Resurrection Men. Today we fire up the retort as we look at the third of a terrifying triumvirate of Victorian death-fears: being embalmed alive, dissected alive, or cremated alive. We have some surprise witnesses to share their stories.
The three fears were often mentioned—and cautionary statistics cited–in the warning screeds published by the various branches of the Society for the Prevention of Premature Burial.
STARTLING FIGURES SUPPLIED BY A DOCTOR.
Some very disconcerting figures were supplied to the meeting of the London Society for the Prevention of Premature Burial at Bloomsbury Town Hall by Dr Hadwen, of Gloucester, as arguments in favour of speedy legislation in. burial reform. The following cases, he said, had been certified by medical men:
Persons buried alive 149
Narrow escapes from burial alive 319
Dissected alive 10
Narrow escapes from dissection alive 2
Embalmed alive 2
Cremated alive 1
Star, 7 July 1906: p. 4
Obviously the odds were vastly against cremation alive, but that reflects the lower instance of cremations in this period. There was still religious prejudice (and some social hostility) towards the practice.
It would seem impossible that we should ever know about most cases of premature cremation: ash tells no tales, unlike the corpses of the buried alive, with their fingers bitten or battered to the bone, their hair and grave clothes rent. But we are fortunate that Spiritualism was on hand to bring us first-hand, beyond-the-grave testimonials from those who met their end in the flames.
How It Feels to be Cremated.
Mrs. Althea Romeyn-Roberts is a Spiritualistic medium at No 36 Cottage Place. She is one of the many who give séances in which forms emerge from a cabinet and present themselves to be re-embodied spirits. There are twenty to thirty such establishments in town, and they have not had any essential differences. In her parlor a cabinet stands against the wall, and from this, after some preliminary speaking and singing, white-robed forms come out into the very dimly-lighted room.
Accepting the theory of unbelievers that these apparitions are either the medium herself or her assistants, there is nothing puzzling about the exhibition. They could be easily introduced into the cabinet through a secret panel, or might sneak into it under cover of what at times becomes total darkness. But of late Mrs. Romeyn-Roberts has bettered the doings of her rivals by introducing a spirit character who tells a sensational story. He purports to be the late James Allen, and he relates to each successive audience that he was cremated alive.
“Folks thought I died at Binghamton about three years ago,’’ he said, on the occasion of the Times correspondent’s visit to the séance, “but I didn’t. I was taken singularly ill and fell into a condition that resembled death. It was a cataleptic attack, I presume, and after a brief spell of unconsciousness I came to myself, so far as my mind was concerned, but could not move a muscle. I soon discovered that I was regarded as a corpse, and a horror of being buried alive took possession of me. But soon I learned that I was not to be buried—I was to be sent to the crematory at Washington, Penn. I then remembered very well that I had expressed a preference for cremation over interment, and that my family were also converts to that new method. I think that I lost consciousness several times, but only for short periods, and nearly all the while I was fully aware of all that was going on. But I could not make the slightest motion or the faintest sound. They put a shroud on me, laid me in a coffin, shut me up and shipped me to Washington. At that place is the first furnace ever built for cremation I suppose in the country. I had read descriptions of the process, and I knew what was coming to me unless I could regain vitality enough to show that I was alive. Struggle as I would I could not get myself at all out of the condition of seeming death. The preparations for burning me went on—enough of them in my presence, too, to keep me aware of them. I was mentally wide awake when they took me out of the coffin and laid me on the iron carrier, which, when all is ready is run into the superheated furnace.”
At this point the alleged ghost launched into a flighty and oratorical description of the horror which he felt at his impending fate. Then he concluded: “The white-hot doors of the furnace were at length opened, and the glare of the intense heat drove the attendant for an instant away from the opening. Four attaches of the crematory were doing the work. My relatives, who had accompanied me to the place, were withdrawn from the room. I made a last frantic exertion to stir and to give utterance to my terror. But I was relentlessly held by the trance, and probably the most careful examination would not have developed evidence of life. The iron carriage run on iron tracks that led directly into the fiery furnace. Then men laid hold of it and moved it nearer. A hot blast almost compelled them to let go, and as for me I seemed to be actually melted in the indescribable temperature. Then they shoved the apparatus suddenly clear into the furnace and shut the door. The clang of the metal was the last thing of which I was conscious. Death came instantly and painlessly. Within a few hours my mortal form was reduced to a few pounds of ashes which was delivered to my relatives, encased in a tin box, to be conveyed to my home and there reverently inurned.”
The Better Way 22 September 1888: p. 1
Allen is practically a poster-boy for the benefits of cremation: “instantly and painlessly” must have reassured his audience, brought up on stories of cataleptics who met terrible deaths after being put living in the tomb.
On the other hand, our old friend Dr Franz Hartmann brought news from a Spiritualist medium that was not quite so sanguine.
REMARKABLE OCCURRENCES AND PRESUMABLE EXPLANATIONS
By FRANZ HARTMANN, M.D.
Perhaps many of the readers of the OCCULT REVIEW residing in Switzerland will remember the death of Mr. H__, a well-known and prominent member of the Federal Council, who suddenly died at his office in the federal palace at Bern, about three years ago, and whose body was brought to Zurich to be cremated. Everybody at Zurich went to see the funeral procession on its way to the crematory. It took place with great pomp; the streets were crowded, musicians played solemn airs, and speeches were delivered. Among the spectators there was present a lady of a very sensitive nature, and in possession of certain mediumistic gifts, and as the coffin containing the corpse passed near her she felt a very curious sensation, and claimed that she had come in contact with the spirit (or aura) of the deceased. The procession went on, and the lady went to her lodging, where she was occupied with other things, and thinking no more of the funeral; but about an hour afterwards, presumably when the preliminary ceremonies at the crematory were ended, she began to suffer terribly from a burning heat overspreading all the left side of her body and face; the skin grew red, and cold water applications had to be applied for relieving the pain. After about a half-an-hour’s intense suffering, the pain left her entirely.
Some time afterwards there was held a spiritualistic séance at the house of Mr. S__, a judge of the Court of Appeal, at which this lady was present. It may here be remarked, in parenthesis, that this Judge S__ was one of the witnesses for defence in the well-known trial of the medium Rothe, at Berlin, where he testified in favour of the actuality of so-called spiritualistic phenomena; but his experience and testimony availed nothing against the ignorance of the Court.
At this séance there manifested an entity claiming to be the personality of Mr. H__. He said that he was unable to see anyone of the persons present in the room, except that lady; and, among other things, he informed the company that his body had been cremated too soon, and before his soul had become fully separated from it, and that in consequence he had suffered intensely at the left side of his body. It then only occurred to that lady to bring the burning sensation which she had experienced into connexion [sic] with the cremation.
Now, as concerns the identity of the” spirit” of Mr. H__, he was asked whether, during his life, he had known anything about the possibility of communicating with the spirits of the departed, and he answered that he had paid no attention to such matters, but had heard of it indirectly through Dr. A. P__. Nobody in the circle knew who this Dr. A. P__ was; but after some research in the register he was found to be a member of the National Council, residing at L__. Mr. S__ thereupon wrote to him, and Dr. A. P__ answered that he had spoken of such things to a friend of Mr. H__, and upon further inquiry it was found that this friend had a conversation with Mr. H__ about it.
Now, in this case, any theory of collusion, telepathy, etc., is to be excluded, because none of the members of that circle knew anything about Dr. A. P__’s existence, nor of his conversation with the friend of Mr. H__; and it seems reasonable to believe that the explanation given by the “spirit” of Mr. H__ is the correct one, and that the ethereal body actually may suffer from injuries inflicted upon the physical body after its apparent death, as long as the soul has not entirely separated from it.
It seems that a similar occurrence took place in the case of H. P. Blavatsky, whose body was burned. It is claimed that before the cremation took place her “spirit” manifested itself in two places: at Paris with the Duchess de P__, and at Hamburg at Professor S__’s, asking in each case that urgent telegrams should be sent to London to request a delay of the cremation, as she had not yet become free from her physical form. The telegrams were sent, but no notice was taken of these warnings by her friends, and the cremation took place at the previously appointed time.
Moreover, at least three cases have come to my notice in which similar communications were received from “spirits” of persons prematurely dissected. One was a case of suicide by poisoning, another by shooting, and the third one that of a young lady who killed herself on account of a love affair, and whose body was exhumed three days after her burial, some suspicion having arisen as to her having been murdered. She was submitted to post-mortem examination and dissected, and the “spirit” claimed that she had felt every cut of the dissecting knife the same as if it had cut her living nerves. Whatever may be thought of such communications, it stands to reason to suppose that the ethereal form of a person dying prematurely a forcible death will find it more difficult to separate itself from the rest of the elementary body, than if the death occurs in a natural way in old age or after a sickness. We find a corresponding law in other departments of nature, for the shell of a ripe orange may easily be detached from the pulp, while from an unripe one it separates with difficulty. Cases of premature burial, cremation, dissection and suffering after forcible death will probably continue to occur until the world at large recognizes the fact that death is not, as public opinion goes, a cessation of the perceptible functions of life; but it takes place only at the final separation of the soul from the physical form.
The Occult Review November 1906: pp 242-3
This is a rather eerie precursor of the recent discovery that brain activity continues some little time after death.
The question of cremation was a hot-button issue throughout the late-19th century. In a lengthy story titled “Ghosts Among Coffins,” about a violent, poltergeist-like haunting at the undertaking establishment of the appropriately-named Valentine Geist in Detroit, the story concludes with a theory that
Yesterday the superstitious came to the settled belief that none other than a ghost haunts the building. Moreover, that it is the ghost of Louis Dohmstreich, a wealthy brewer, who was killed by being thrown from his sleigh about the time the weird rappings and rackets began. His body was taken to Buffalo and cremated there. Geist had charge of the funeral and accompanied the body to the crematory, returning with the ashes. This grounds the belief in the minds of many that the spirit of the dead man has come back to protest against cremation and make it exceedingly warm for the undertaker.
Omaha [NE] World Herald 19 February 1887: p. 1
In other cases, the ghost protested because he or she had not been cremated as requested. While cremation was regarded by burial reformers as a hygienic alternative to over-filled churchyards, it was still seen by many as the choice of the crank or the infidel. While we may wonder why the “spook” was so adamant, this is not the only story I have seen of a ghost returning when its wish for cremation was ignored.
SPOOK INSISTS ON CREMATION
Ghost of Ernest Heinig Upbraids His Sister for Burying his Body
Fort Wayne, Ind.; March 7. The body of Ernest Heinig was cremated Saturday evening at the Lindenwood crematory, under peculiar circumstances. Heinig committed suicide on Jan. 30, because of despondency, owing to having been thrown out of employment. Two weeks before he died he expressed to his sister, Mrs. Leuchner, the wish that in the event of his demise his remains might be cremated. Mrs. Leuchner, however, had a horror of cremation, and had his body buried. One night last week, Mrs. Leuchner says, her brother appeared to her in a dream and demanded why her promise had not been fulfilled, and insisted that she, even then, should cause the body to be exhumed and burned. So impressed was Mrs. Leuchner by the dream that she ordered the corpse taken up and cremated.
Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 7 March 1899: p. 1
Returning to the initial story of the young Indian woman, we find this similar tale from 1889. Cholera was a great dissembler of death and fearful communities hastily bundled its victims into the grave without much thought.
I am here reminded of an incident told me by the Residency surgeon. The young wife of a well-to-do Hindoo was struck down by cholera. Our friend the doctor was called, and under his care she rallied, and bade fair to recover. What was his surprise to be told, two or three days after, that the woman was being carried at that very moment to the Pashupati burning ghat! He mounted his horse and rushed down to the place. Here he found his poor patient still alive, but laid out so that her feet touched the flowing stream, while beside her the wood was being arranged, and the cremation ceremonies were under way. The doctor expostulated with the husband and relatives, and urged them to desist at once from their murderous intentions. They were finally prevailed upon to stay proceedings, and to take the poor woman home. She survived only three days. But for her rough exposure to premature cremation she might have entirely recovered.
Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1889: p. 479
And finally, this is the only story I have found of premature cremation being both discovered and prosecuted. As we might expect, it is reported from a land far, far away.
The police at Hiroshima, Japan, have arrested a man named Jinsuke Ikeda and his wife, says the ‘Japan Times,’ on a charge of wilfully cremating a live man. The prisoners were in charge of a crematorium, and while at work a faint voice coming out of the coffin begged for fresh air. The couple took no notice, however, and proceeded to apply fire, roasting the man alive.
Mataura Ensign, 1 September 1911, Page 5
Other horrors of premature cremation? Fire them over to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback illeand for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.