I am not so much afraid of death; as ashamed thereof. ’tis the very disgrace and ignominy of our natures, that in a moment can so disfigure us that our nearest friends, wife, and children, stand afraid and start at us.
-Sir Thomas Browne-
Today’s terror is the fear of corpses. Is it the oldest fear in the world? Older, even, than the fear of ghosts? It was certainly a rational horror. Before the advent of germ theory there were endless reports of the deadly miasmas arising from putrefying corpses. Lead coffins burst from the gases of decomposition. Badly embalmed monarchs were said to explode. During outbreaks of plague, the dying were abandoned with the dead or thrown into graves alive with the corpses. There are accounts from an Ohio cholera epidemic of parents locking a child in a room and watching through the window until it died. And of a young woman leaving a note for the neighbors saying that both of her parents were dead and she was dying and that the neighbors should burn the cabin down with the bodies inside so that no one else would be exposed. While we modern, unsuperstitious people may think, “the dead are dead,” there is a lingering atavistic fear that the corpse will rise, resentful of the living, to somehow do us harm.
The illustration above is from a 14th-century Italian fresco called “The Three Living and the Three Dead,” where the stench of the realistically depicted corpses becomes a memento mori for the living. Let us hold our handkerchiefs drenched in scent to our noses for some grim and grewsome tales of the fear of corpses.
A note on selection: These are ordinary corpses, being watched by the living before burial, not horrifyingly decomposed murder or accident victims. Disasters such as the Johnstown flood, the Galveston hurricane, the Ashtabula Bridge disaster, or the Brooklyn Theatre fire brought out lavish and lurid descriptions of the decomposing dead. Memoirs of soldiers at Gettysburg (and other battles) and in the trenches of the Great War also spared no horrible details of the dead. The corpses of disasters past engendered their own genre of cadaver horror stories, very different from the fear felt in the quiet watches of the night.
Let us open with a general musing about the fear of a dead body. This comes from a passage preceeded by the death of the narrator’s ship’s captain:
How perfectly unaccountable, that when a body is placed in that situation, as to render it impossible to be injurious to others, from that moment it is more feared, and more dreaded, than when clothed in all the pomp of military parade, having the power to inflict punishment, or to entail disgrace. This is not only common to sailors, but to those who make it a profession to sit up with the dead. I remember asking an undertaker’s man if he felt any fear at being alone with the corpse all night. “At first, sir,” he said, “I felt more than I can explain; but now, with plenty of lights, and some books, I don’t mind it much, if the door is locked.”
“Egad,” I replied, “that is the very thing I should not like, for one would be fumbling half an hour with the key; and whenever fear commences, the chance of doing anything right is more than doubled.”
“Very true, sir,” he replied, “but what man has nerves enough, at the dead of night, sitting by a corpse, if the door should slowly open, occasioned perhaps only by the wind—what man, sir, do you think could face that?”—thereby admitting that all the practice, all the coolnes sand courage which experience generally gives, could not surmount that extraordinary feeling of fear for the dead, and apprehension of mischief from an inaminate being. The Life of a Sailor, Vol. 2, Frederick Chamier, 1833
This passage refers to the custom, formerly current in many societies, that a dead body must be watched until buried. The solitary vigil, as opposed to the riotous communal wake, could be a gruesome experience. Windows were often thrown open in the dead of winter to keep the corpse cool; embalming fluid was sometimes kept on hand to pour over or around the body. Despite precautions, decomposition might proceed rapidly, with its attendant vile liquids and insect infestations. And no matter how beloved the corpse had been in life, in the dark, in the silence, death could “so disfigure us that our nearest friends, wife, and children, stand afraid and start at us.”
While watching the body was a religious practice and a token of respect, this may also have been done to confirm that the person was actually dead, or to ensure that an evil spirit would not reanimate the body, as in Grettis saga, where the wicked Glam becomes possessed by a violent ghost and wreaks havoc on the district.
The watchers were also supposed to protect the corpse. Some believed that if a cat (or sometimes other animals) leapt over a corpse, it would become a vampire. I’ve previously posted about cats attacking corpses. Here is another:
I was watching a corpse. In that part of the United States the dead are never left alone till the earth is thrown upon them, and, as a friend of the family, I had been called upon for this melancholy service on the night preceding the interment. It was a death which had left a family of broken hearts; for, beneath the sheet which sank so appallingly to the outline of a human form, lay a wreck of beauty and sweetness whose loss seemed to the survivors to have darkened the face of the earth. The ethereal and touching loveliness of that dying girl, whom I had known only a hopeless victim of consumption, springs up in my memory even yet, and mingles with every conception of female beauty.
Two ladies, friends of the deceased, were to share my vigils. I knew them but slightly, and, having read them to sleep an hour after midnight, I performed my half-hourly duty of entering the room where the corpse lay, to look after the lights, and then strolled into the garden to enjoy the quiet of the summer night. The flowers were glittering in their pearl-drops, and the air was breathless.
The sight of the long, sheeted corpse, the sudden flare of lights as the long snuffs were removed from the candles, the stillness of the close-shuttered room, and my own predisposition to invest death with a supernatural interest, had raised my heart to my throat. I walked backwards and forwards in the garden-path; and the black shadows beneath the lilacs, and even the glittering of the glow-worms within them, seemed weird and fearful.
The clock struck, and I re-entered. My companions still slept, and I passed on to the inner chamber. I trimmed the lights, and stood and looked at the white heap lying so fearfully still within the shadow of the curtains; and my blood seemed to freeze. At the moment when I was turning away with a strong effort at a more composed feeling, a noise like a flutter of wings, followed by a rush and a sudden silence, struck on my startled ear. The street was as quiet as death, and the noise, which was far too audible to be a deception of the fancy, had come from the side toward an uninhabited wing of the house. My heart stood still. Another instant, and the fire-screen was dashed down, and a white cat rushed past me, and with the speed of light sprang like a hyena upon the corpse. The flight of a vampyre into the chamber would not have more curdled my veins. A convulsive shudder ran cold over me, but, recovering my self-command, I rushed to the animal (of whose horrible appetite for the flesh of the dead I had read incredulously), and attempted to tear her from the body. With her claws fixed in the breast, and a yowl like the wail of an infernal spirit, she crouched fearlessly upon it, and the stains already upon the sheet convinced me that it would be impossible to remove her without shockingly disfiguring the corpse. I seized her by the throat, in the hope of choking her, but, with the first pressure of my fingers, she flew into my face, and the infuriated animal seemed persuaded that it was a contest for life. Half-blinded by the fury of her attack, I loosed her for a moment, and she immediately leaped again upon the corpse, and had covered her feet and face with blood before I could recover my hold upon her. The body was no longer in a situation to be spared, and I seized her with a desperate grasp to draw her off; but to my horror, the half-covered and bloody corpse rose upright in her fangs, and, while I paused in fear, sat with drooping arms, and head fallen with ghastly helplessness over the shoulder. Years have not removed that fearful spectacle from my eyes.
The corpse sank back, and I succeeded in throttling the insane monster, and threw her at last lifeless from the window. I then composed the disturbed limbs, laid the hair away once more smoothly on the forehead, and, crossing the hands over the bosom, covered the violated remains, and left them again to their repose. My companions, strangely enough, slept on, and I paced the garden-walk alone, till the day, to my inexpressible relief, dawned over, the mountains. The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal Universal Register, 1832
THE CORPSE SAT UP
A Watcher’s Grewsome Experience In the Room of a Dead Friend.
“I am not a believer in the supernatural,” said a young man to a writer for The Courier-Journal, “but every time I see a copy of Wilkie Collins’ novel, ‘The Woman in White,’ I get the creeps, for it recalls one of the most awful experiences in my life. I boarded in the southern portion of the city, at the home of a widow, in whose family was an interesting youth about 16 years old. He and I were exceedingly fond of one another, perhaps from the fact that he was afflicted with epilepsy, and I was the only person about the house who understood how to relieve him and was able to handle him without his hurting himself while in convulsions. He did not live long after I knew him and died in my arms in one of his attacks. The incident I am speaking of occurred on one of the very coldest nights in January. The boy had died at noon, and the family sat up with the corpse until midnight, when I relieved them in the watch, requesting all to retire, as I loved the boy so well I felt I my duty to stay near him in death. An hour passed, and I picked up a copy of ‘The Woman In White’ to while away the somber watch. I drew near the fireplace and turned up the lamp a little higher, as the rest of the room was very dark, and a window was raised back of the corpse on the cooling board. After all had gone to bed the realization of the somber situation obtruded itself upon me, and as I perused the novel its contents were not calculated to reassure me. I thought about everything possible, and for the first time in my life I began to quake with fear.
“I was in such a condition of mind that the dropping of a pin would have been noted at once, and the creaking of a piece of furniture or the swaying of a shutter would have sent terror through my heart. In this overwrought state of mind I heard a light noise and turned toward the corpse, when, awful to relate, I saw my friend raise his hands, throw back the pall and sit stark upright. The eyes, which had never been closed, looked searchingly about the room until they rested on me, the open mouth contracted, and the countenance took a distorted expression. Without pausing I dashed from the room into the dark corridors.
“When I reached my bedroom, I fell in a swoon, which must have lasted several hours, for on awakening I saw the sun just tingeing the eastern horizon. Finding myself on the floor with the novel clinched in my hand recalled the dreadful scene, and pulling myself up from the floor I rang a call bell for a servant. The servant came, and we descended to the parlor after I had told him what had happened. Yes, I had actually experienced that dreadful scene, for the corpse was found lying across the bier. We went over to it. The muscles were all relaxed, and it appeared sleeping peacefully. It was laid back as it had been arranged by loving friends. As I could not explain the phenomenon I had witnessed, I went for a physician. He said the boy had been dead all the time, but that the muscles contracted during his fit had been relaxed in my presence. We agreed not to tell the circumstance to the family, but it is true in every particular, and when I think of the awful scene even in daytime I am filled with terror.
“I have never got into ‘The Woman In White’ farther than three chapters, and I do not think now that I shall ever finish the story that is so intimately associated with this awful ghost story in real life.” Louisville Courier-Journal. Sandusky [OH] Register 23 July 1894: p. 6
Just as there is startling ambiguity in a corpse that throws back his pall, sits up, and looks at the narrator, this next tale is troublingly vague as to whether the corpse had really come back to life before being reburied in such haste.
A young man died in Louglibrickland [County Down], who lived a very wicked life, disregarding the sabbath, which he spent in drinking, and was also a notorious blasphemer. In the time of the wake, previous to burial, as the candles burned round him where he was stretched in a shroud, the looking-glass covered with a sheet, and others hung round the wall; midnight came, the wake was not attended as is too customary by drunkards and gossips, regaling with whiskey, snuff, pipes, and tobacco, while the young are taught to laugh away the terrors of death by obscene plays and ill-timed merriment; this corpse was attended by a single person to watch the candles, a most offensive smell rose from the body, and the attendant went out for a few minutes, on returning, it was perceived with horror and affright, that the dead man was up resting on his elbow; the family was called, and on their entering, the countenance of the corpse was ugly beyond human possibility, and with many violent gesticulations and distortions of features, began to utter a strain of unheard of oaths, with a fluency and originality not to be described.
The curate was sent for; the young gentleman soon came; but his prayers were drowned in the dreadful voice of the deceased. An old Presbyterian clergyman also came, he approached with his bible, and never took his eyes of it, because he was told that the look of the corpse had disconcerted the curate. He abjured it by the three Holy Names of the Trinity, upon which the corpse immediately sunk down in its shroud ; those in the room hurried to put it in the coffin, nailed down the lid, and buried it as soon as possible. Mr. S. was in the house, and witnessed the whole transaction, he said the voice from the corpse was most appalling. The Supernatural Magazine 1809
It is this ambiguity that so worried people about the possibility of premature interment, a terrifying subject we will return to in a later post.
It is an odd thing that, while we, as a society, distance ourselves from death, there is a rising fascination with the decomposing, walking dead. I know many adults who have never been to a funeral because their parents felt it would traumatize them to see a dead body. Perhaps zombies and shambling faux-corpses are a way to expose us to the deaths that we will inevitably experience. One hopes that the corpses in those deaths will not be so aggressively mobile.
Any corpse-watching stories? Disinfect with carbolic acid and send to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Portions of the post above appear in The Victorian Book of the Dead, which can be purchased at Amazon and other online retailers. (Or ask your local bookstore or library to order it.) It is also available in a Kindle edition.
See this link for an introduction to this collection about the popular culture of Victorian mourning, featuring primary-source materials about corpses, crypts, crape, and much more.
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 and 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.