Kiss the Corpse and Then You Die

Kiss the Corpse and Then You Die, "Kiss of Death," Todeskuss, Edvard Munch, 1899

Kiss the Corpse and Then You Die, “Kiss of Death,” Todeskuss, Edvard Munch, 1899

“The Unquiet Grave”

[The corpse speaks to her mourning lover]

‘You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips;

But my breath smells earthy strong;

If you have one kiss of my clay-cold lips,

Your time will not be long.

(Child 78A)

Yesterday was, among other things, “National Kissing Day.” I hope you all came through unscathed. I’ve written before about the dangers of kissing:  poisons lurking in the mouth, nasty microbes, and the possibility of sepsis—and that’s just while canoodling with the corporeal. But what about kissing the sick and the dead? Beware! There’s death in the pout….

I have not yet discovered all the origins and meanings of the nineteenth-century custom of kissing the corpse. [another day, another post.] Making contact with the corpse meant different things in different cultures and at different times: it might mean respect, love, farewell, good luck, bad luck, a charm against hauntings, or, sometimes, accusations of murder.

Whether the body was viewed at a wake where it lay in as much state as a kitchen table could supply, or at a church, where friends were invited to file by the coffin to take a final look before the lid was screwed down, the face of the corpse was within lip-smacking distance of the mourners. Yet while the custom of kissing the corpse was exceptionally pervasive, the medical profession recoiled in horror.

Let us hear from some medical men who denounced “carelessly conducted funerals” and thundered, “to allow a ‘last kiss’ is morally criminal.”

The public character of funerals to the extent of exposing the body of a child dead from diphtheria to public visitation of friends and neighbors, they not only viewing the body themselves but permitting their children to come in immediate contact and even kiss the dead child’s face; nor was this all, but the bodies of children who had died from malignant diphtheria have been taken into churches for public services, and their little playmates have acted as pallbearers without the least effort to even cleanse or protect the mouth or nostrils of the corpse. The Medical News, Volume 68, 22 February 1896: p. 217

To those who have seen a tenement-house “wake,” there is no mystery about the spread of contagious diseases; and the difficulties in the way of enforcing the law requiring private funerals in such cases can be easily imagined. The health inspectors have met with violent opposition in endeavoring to perform this duty; and he would, indeed, be rash who would venture, single-handed and unprotected, upon such a mission. Some of your readers may remember the experience of a poor man who, in his anxiety to avoid carrying diphtheria to his own home, dared to refuse “to kiss the corpse.” He was seized by the excited people at the “wake,” and but for timely aid would have been thrown out of a window. Medical News, Volume 56, 19 April 1890: p. 433

Killing Children.

“I want to set the seal of my condemnation on a practice that is much in vogue,” said a physician recently. “A few days ago I attended a funeral. The deceased was an estimable woman, well known and had lots of friends present. The services were held in the church, and after the sermon the people passed the coffin to take a final look at the corpse. About one in every ten and perhaps more, stooped over and kissed the lips of the dead. It was a mark of affection, and a common custom, but much more appropriately honored in the breach than in the observance. That woman died of contagious malady, and every woman who kissed the corpse assisted in scattering the germs of disease and death. They may not have known it, but they should. Some of those people went home to little children, and the kiss of greeting as they entered was the seal of death for some of them. A child’s system is receptive and amenable to any sickness that comes in its way, and if any of these children thus poisoned, should die, it would all be charged to Providence, when it was their own criminal carelessness that wrought the mischief.” The Columbian [Bloomsburg PA] 3 July 1885: p. 4

And, finally, this physician did not mince words:

The Death Kiss.

This means, for the purpose for which we wish to use it, “Kissing the dead.” This revolting custom, to which too many yield in their affectionate devotion to the deceased loved one, possesses danger to which every physician should called the attention of the public. The body of a person who has died of disease—whether of a distinctly contagious disease or not—is not a wholesome object. How often have we seen an entire family lingering around the coffin and repeatedly kissing the beloved features still in death and already beginning nature’s process of slow dissolution; and how many subsequent cases of sickness have we thought might be traced to that as, at least, a contributory cause. On this subject the London correspondent of the American Lancet gives the following information:

“It is reported that the Servians have a curious custom of giving a parting kiss to their deceased friends before final burial, and the observance of it has caused a serious epidemic of diphtheria. The Police Prefect of Belgrade has accordingly issued stringent orders against the custom; prohibiting it for the present, however, only in the cases of those persons who have died from that malady.”

A special request of each person in serious illness should be “Let no one kiss me after I am dead.” This need not require that a corpse be regarded with a sense of horror, with which many seem to regard it, but merely as a tenement which the former occupant has left and which no longer represents him.

The custom of kissing sick people is also very dangerous and should be discountenanced as strongly as possible. The Medical World, Volume 10, 1892: p. 42

The linked themes of corpse-kissing and diphtheria run like a pocket of infection through the newspapers and medical journals of the nineteenth century.


Carelessness of Relatives and Physician Causes an Epidemic.

A short time ago a child belonging to a family named Jungfirman, in Neola [Iowa], was taken sick and died. It was attended by a physician of that place who, although the disease had the symptoms of diphtheria, declared that it was not in fact that disease and permitted the funeral to be public. The funeral was largely attended, and a number of the comrades of the dead child, as well as its relatives, viewed the body and many of them kissed the lips of the corpse.

The result is an epidemic of diphtheria. Twelve persons belonging to five families have been taken with the disease and two deaths have occurred. When the epidemic began other physicians were called in, and they pronounced the disease diphtheria and since then the precautions prescribed by law have been observed to prevent the spread of the scourge, and it is believed that it is now under control. Omaha [NE] World-Herald 8 August 1896: p. 3

Even royalty was not exempt from the terrible scourge.


The Princess Alice, of England, Grand Duchess of Hesse, died September I4, I878, on the anniversary of her father’s death, and also on that of the recovery of her brother, the Prince of Wales, from a dangerous illness, 1871. The Prime Minister, in the House of Lords, said: “The physician enjoined her not to kiss her children, she obeyed; but it became her lot to break to her son, quite a youth, the news of the death of his youngest sister, and the boy was so overcome with misery, that the agitated mother clasped him in her arms and received the kiss of death.” [It was also suggested that she had kissed her dead daughter.]

The Curiosities of Kissing: Wit and Humor, Story and Anecdote on Kisses, edited by Alfred Fowler 1905: p. 39

In 1905 some local health officials responded furiously when a boy died of meningitis in Breslau, Hanover Township, Pennsylvania.


Sixty School Children Were Allowed to Kiss Remains of One of the Recent Victims.

School Board Knew of the Disease, But Took No Action in the Premises.

Condition such as would bring the blush of shame to even the most heathenish race, exist at Breslau in Hanover township where at the present time there are five cases of cerebro-spinal meningitis. Mrs. Wincinski Dyobszinsky and four children all in the same family are now afflicted the other infant having died and was buried yesterday.

The funeral of the little boy who died was held yesterday and was public, everybody, including the school children, being admitted. Out of ninety school children attending the public schools of that town a fair estimate made from a canvass of the pupils shows that about sixty-five of them entered the home of the dead boy, viewed the body and then planted a kiss upon the cold lips of the victim.

Entering a room in which the atmosphere was permeated with the germs of this terrible malady was bad enough in itself, but to permit a large number of little children just starting to school to go in and kiss the victim was something that demands the most urgent investigation on the part of the health authorities of Pennsylvania.


The funeral was one of the most largely attended in many months and it seemed that everybody in the town was anxious to get a view of the dead form of the little one. The disease appears to be something new to the populace of that village and they do not realize for a moment the danger about them. The people outside of the English speaking classes go into the house at the present time as though nothing out of the ordinary had taken place.

Dr. Whitney, of Plymouth, as soon as he discovered that the children were suffering from the awful disease immediately notified the school board of the township, but nothing was done on the question. Everything has been left go by default, and if something is not done at once one of the worst epidemics in the history of Pennsylvania may be recorded in that township.

Cerebro spinal meningitis, a disease from which only about one out of a hundred recover is the worst malady known to medical science. On the house where the people are afflicted in Breslau, there is not even a sign to indicate that it is unsafe to enter. A Leader representative visited the scene this morning and saw fully one dozen young people enter the house and leave again. How long this state of affairs will exist remains to be seen but some action must be taken at once.


At the Breslau school this morning many of the pupils openly stated to the teachers that they had kissed the corpse. These were sent home at once and even then the parents of those dismissed appeared at the school house and objected to the dismissal. One woman said that there was no danger of her children catching it and added that even if they did it was not such a terrible thing.

When a Leader representative visited the scene and inquired about the condition, the people did not seem to think there was anything unusual about a person passing away from the disease and appeared to be under the impression that it was a minor ailment. Ignorance on their part has led to carelessness on the part of everybody whose duty it is to remedy the existing evil. The Union Leader [Wilkes-Barre PA] 28 April 1905: p. 1

Kissing the corpse was also believed to be behind cases of blood-poisoning:


Blood Poisoning Sets in and She Dies in Most Terrible Agony.

Vienna, August 27. Passionately devoted to her father, who died recently at Budapest, a girl of 17, named Anna Boros, threw herself upon his body and kissed him on the mouth, forehead and cheeks. Next day her lips became painful, her face swelled, and she died soon after in terrible agony from blood poisoning.

Her sweetheart was greatly affected at her death, and having bought some ground beside her grave, arranged that he should be buried there when his time came. Then, as he was about to visit the cemetery with his dead fiancé’s mother, he suddenly went into a neighboring room and shot himself dead. The Times Dispatch [Richmond VA] 28 August 1904: p. 27

Death in a Kiss

Marion, O., June 5. One week ago last Sunday Thomas Search was buried here. Before the funeral Tommie Porter, his grandson, was allowed to kiss the remains and shortly afterward was taken ill. Monday night he grew much worse, and the physicians state that he is suffering from a severe attack of blood poisoning. It is not believed that he can survive much longer. It is the general supposition that the blood poisoning was contracted at the time of the kiss. Akron [OH] Daily Democrat 5 June 1895: p. 2

Grandfathers could be deadly:

Death in a Kiss.

The sad death of little Georgie Cutter in Brooklyn a few days ago from the effects of a kiss given to a dying grandfather, who was suffering from blood poisoning, should call the public attention to the extreme peril of the practice of kissing the dying and dead. The little boy’s sister [Essie] had kissed her grandfather when his system was thoroughly impregnated with poison, and she was almost immediately stricken with diphtheria. She and her brother were constant companions in her illness, and she communicated her disease to him by kisses. He died and the girl now lies between life and death.

These facts are the most potent argument against the indulgence of the particular sentimentalism that sanctions as eminently proper kissing the pale lips of the dead and dying. When the life is departing out of its clay tenement is no time for this emotional display. And the above recorded case shows how a giving away to the feelings that dictate this line of action may bring in its train quick death to the living. Lancaster [PA] Daily Intelligencer 27 May 1886: p. 2

A more detailed version of the case is related in The Atlanta [GA] Constitution 29 May 1886: p. 2.

I am not sure whether Essie survived or not. Her parents, Dr. George Cutter and Esther Cutter, are buried at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn with Georgie, but she does not seem to be with them.

There are descriptions of infectious diseases leaving the corpse in such a revolting condition that it is hard to imagine anyone wanting to be in the same room with the cadaver, let alone kiss it.

There’s this:

In one instance, known in this city, and probably there are others, the friends of the deceased were found at a wake kissing the swollen lips of the corpse of a person who had died of confluent small-pox. Cyclopædia of the Practice of Medicine, Volume 19, Hugo Ziemssen, 1879: p. 520

Or this:

A lady of about forty-five years of age, of sound constitution, and in the enjoyment of excellent health, was suddenly called, about a year ago, to the death-bed of one who was very dear to her. That death-bed was fearfully sudden and unexpected, and that poor lady could not be persuaded, long after death had indubitably taken place, that the spirit of the beloved one had really fled. She would not leave the corpse; she threw herself on it, and kissed it over and over again, and could not be induced to leave it, even when the discoloration of the skin and the offensive smell of rapidly-advancing decomposition gave ample testimony of the reality of death. The burial was performed two days after death, owing to the rapid decomposition of the body; and, soon after the funeral, I was hastily summoned to the bedside of this lady, whom I found in the following condition. [description of what seems to be cholera omitted.] The Chicago Medical Examiner January 1865: p. 40-41

And this:

Case I.—On the evening of July 20th, 1829, I was requested to visit Miss P., a young lady about twenty-two years of age…

On Saturday, the 18th, the father of the patient died of a lingering consumption, accompanied, toward its close, with extensive disease of the intestinal canal, producing diarrhoea and bloody mucous discharges, alternating with a copious expectoration of a depraved purulent matter from the lungs. The daughter, as is common on such occasions, was observed to kiss the corpse, having at the time a sore lip deprived of its cuticle. On Sunday, the 19th, the lip became inflamed and painful, and commenced swelling. On the evening of the 20th, the swelling extended from the right corner of the mouth, involving one half of the upper lip. It was hard, painful, of a deep red color, and had on its most prominent part a small festered surface.

[I omit the detailed case report of treatments and symptoms until the patient’s death on the 28th.]

Is it not reasonable to suppose that, independent of the local affection, there had been absorbed into the system a poison from the dead body, with which the lips of the patient came in contact, and which was the cause of the obstinacy and malignancy of the symptoms? The mouth of the deceased father was filled with apthous ulcers, and the stumps of decayed teeth. It is a common thing for a quantity of frothy mucus to ooze from the mouth after death, which may have inoculated the lip of the patient; or, if this was not the case, the moisture on any part of the surface of a corpse as ill-conditioned as this was, coming in contact with a raw surface would, perhaps, be sufficient to produce the effect. This is more likely to be concluded, when, from the preceding history, we find that although at times there appeared to be a remission, evidently produced by the treatment, which, in ordinary circumstances, would have been sufficient to check the disease, yet, in this case, there appeared to exist an irritation which soon renewed the violence of the symptoms only to be mitigated by the measures resorted to. The New York Medical and Physical Journal, Volume 9, John Brodhead Beck, 1830: p. 42-44

Death from illness triggered by the stress of a bereavement is suggested by these two stories:

Kissed a Corpse and Died.

New York, Feb. 20. Mrs. Kate Hartney, a sister of Undertaker Edward Hope, died at her home, in Third street, Jersey City, Monday. Mrs. Isaac Kaylor, widow of Isaac Kaylor, a prominent Democratic politician, was in the house Monday night. She had been a life-long friend of Mrs. Hartney. At midnight Mrs. Kaylor told the relative that she was going home. “I will take a last look at my dear friend,” she said and she bowed over the casket and kissed the lips of the corpse. The next moment Mrs. Kaylor gasped and fell to the floor dead. A physician said death resulted from heart disease. Daily Illinois State Register [Springfield, IL] 21 February 1892: p. 2


The Brother of the Deceased Suddenly Stricken With an Epileptic Attack.

Millville, N.J., Jan. 21. The mourners who were gathered Saturday afternoon at the funeral of Mrs. Elizabeth White were thrown into consternation by the sudden attack of illness which overtook James Robinson, a brother of the dead woman. Just as he kissed the corpse, he was seen to reel and fall backward. He was attacked with epilepsy and lingered until 9:30 o’clock Sunday morning, when he died.

The utmost excitement prevailed among the mourners when Mr. Robinson was stricken, and the funeral was abruptly halted while a physician worked over the stricken man.

As he grew no better in an hour, the corpse was carried out and the funeral procession wended its way to the cemetery, where the interment took place. Cincinnati [OH] Post 21 January 1895: p. 3

But does that explain the death of this infant?

A Maine newspaper says that Mrs. Esther Potter of Long Ridge, who has just died after a long illness from consumption, was the mother of four children, the youngest a babe. She could not bear to think of leaving the little one, and constantly prayed that it might go with her when she died. A few days ago, when it was plain that she was about to die, she called her family around her and bade them good-bye, and then, clinging to the baby, prayed that it might die too. It had been perfectly well, apparently, but, after a kiss from its dying mother, closed its eyes, and in five minutes was dead.—Banner of Light. Religio-Philosophical Journal 5 May 1888: p. 5

Let us hope that it was simply a case of tubercular contagion between mother and child.

One can understand an illness caught from a putrefying and contagious corpse, but this death is completely beyond the pale.

A Victim to Her Love for the Dead.

Erie, Pa., Dec. 9. Mrs. William Savory, of Northeast, lies dying, a sacrifice to her love for a dead friend. Her dearest young lady friend, Miss Stella Stinson, had died of consumption, and when Mrs. Savory heard of her death she entered the room where the corpse lay and kissed the lifeless lips of her dead friend passionately. The undertaker, who was temporarily absent from the room, had just saturated the face and lips of the dead girl with a poisonous liquid. Mrs. Savory, having absorbed the deadly poison was stricken a few hours later, and her sufferings are excruciating. The Daily City News [New Castle PA] 10 December 1888: p. 1

In a story headed “The Peril of Kissing the Dead,” the liquid was described as “a poisonous compound for preserving a life-like color.” Miss Stinson’s name is given as “Lucy.” The Charlotte [NC] Democrat 14 December 1888.

I’ve seen other reports of jars of embalming fluid or preservative liquid being kept by the coffin; the undertaker either doused the corpse himself or, for the night vigil, directed the watchers to apply it at regular intervals.

To sum up, a final moral flourish from a story about Mrs. Savory’s shocking death:

While to kiss the lips of a dear one whose face has hardly lost the indescribable stamp of life is suggested by the tenderest feeling in the world, common sense asserts that it were better not to do so. The Erie lady is not the first person to suffer from an outpouring of affection for a departed one. Many diseases not generally regarded as particularly infectious, leave poison on the lips of those who have died from them, and yet, how hard it is to take a last farewell without bending down to touch the dear face that the undertaker is waiting to cover forever. Thus death imparts death, even without the assistance of embalming fluid. The Pittsburgh [PA] Press 10 December 1888: p. 4

Other stories of diseases communicated by kissing the dead? chriswoodyard8 AT

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 Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.


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