In France between 1830 and 1835 there were 30 different theories about how to tell if someone was dead, leading a toxicologist named Professor Manni to offer 1500 gold francs to the French Academy of Sciences in 1837, to be awarded to the scientist who had worked out an easy, reliable sign of death. The first two times the prize was offered none was good enough.
The third time a young doctor called Eugène Bouchut entered. He favoured the recently invented stethoscope, which was used to diagnose heart and lung disease, and suggested that it could be used to diagnose when the heart stopped beating. He believed that if you listened with a stethoscope and heard no heartbeat for two minutes, the patient could be safely buried. In 1848, he was awarded the prize.
It may seem bizarre to think that Bouchut won a substantial prize for noticing that the heartbeat is a good way of telling if someone has died, but it wasn’t at all obvious until he pointed it out.
The medical establishment, unsurprisingly, didn’t take this on 35 years for the idea to become almost wholly accepted.
Ideas that Didn’t Win:
Time is a great teacher. Unfortunately, it kills all its pupils.
The Malagasy of Madagascar do not believe in death, only a passage to another life.
The traditional test was to hold a mirror up to the body’s mouth and nose to see if it misted.
In 1879, Italian Ugo Magnus proposed tying string around the patient's finger; if they were still alive the finger would go blue and swell up as the blood-flow stopped.
Dr Collongues proposed that if a living person’s finger was stuck into the doctor's ear, the involuntary slight muscle movements produced a buzzing sound; if the finger of a corpse was inserted the same way you would hear nothing.
One Swedish writer recommended that a crawling insect be put into the corpse's ear.
Dr Laborde said the patient’s tongue should be rhythmically pulled for three hours. He claimed that he had once been called to an unconscious woman at a dentist’s, after a mishap with the anaesthetic. Laborde grabbed her tongue with strong forceps and started pulling it violently, and the woman was apparently saved. He also claimed to have revived an unconscious cow and a swooning English bulldog, and later invented an electric tongue-pulling machine for use in the mortuary.
Other prizes were offered as well; the Prix D’Ourches in 1868 was much bigger, at 5,000 francs. It attracted over a hundred suggestions from all over the world; the claimants included clergymen, rabbis, military officers, a grocer and a hairdresser. The hairdresser said that he could tell from the appearance of the hair whether a person was dead or alive, and offered to go into detail once they gave him the prize. The academy declined. A German applicant offered to hypnotize the presumed corpses to find out if they were dead. The eventual winner was a forensic specialist who suggested that the body’s skin should be brushed hard some hours after death. If the skin became parchment-like, you had a corpse.
The fear of being buried alive was so widespread in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries that an entire system of hospitals for the dead was established where people could be kept in for observation until they started to go off, in case they woke up.
It started with a book in 1740 called Mortae Incertae Signa (Uncertain Signs of Death) which led to changes in the law - in many German states it was decreed that burial should be delayed by between 24 and 48 hours after death. In 1788 an Austrian doctor called Johann Frank recommended that corpses should be kept above ground for two or three days to await the onset of putrefaction, supposedly the only sure sign of death. He suggested that every town should have a communal house for the dead, so corpses could be supervised until they could be safely declared dead. Accordingly, the first Vitae Dubiae Asylum, or Hospital for Doubtful Life, was opened in Weimar in 1792. Each corpse was kept in a warm environment until putrefaction set in.
The Munich Leichenhaus (‘mortuary-house’) had a section for common corpses, and a luxury section which cost five times as much. For a fee people could stroll through the mortuary, to see the flowers (to mask the smell) and the bodies. The strings from the fingers and toes of the corpses were connected to a large harmonium with air-pressured bellows, so you could hear if someone woke up. At night, the swelling of the putrefying corpses frequently set off the mechanism.
As late as the 1880s, Munich had six ‘waiting mortuaries’. They eventually fell into disuse and were torn down or converted into ordinary mortuaries. One doctor calculated that in the 23 years from 1822-45 over 46,500 people had been 'supervised', without a single ‘resurrection’.
Death by asteroid is almost twice as likely as being killed by lightning.
I intend to live forever, or die trying.
Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, was among 24 people who were the first to have their ashes launched into space on April 21st 1997.
Physician Antoine Louis invented a system of tobacco smoke enemas to test whether people were actually dead. It didn’t work.
A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.
After the Battle of Hastings, Harold's body was identified by his tattoo, which depicted the name of his lover - Edith Swan-neck.
The indigenous population of Madagascar are the Malagasy. Every few years, some groups of Malagasy dig up the bodies of their ancestors, dress them in new silk scarves, and dance around to live jazz, holding the bodies above their heads. They also spray their ancestors’ bodies with perfume or bathe them in sparkling wine.
After the dance, the corpses are placed on the ground and the elders tell their children about the significance of their relatives. They then tell the ancestors any family news, and introduce them to children who’ve been born since the last time they were dug up. Then the bodies are reburied, arranged in as lifelike a pose as possible. The ceremony is called the Famadihana.
The ceremony must happen after a family member has a particular dream where a dead relative complains that it’s cold in the tomb. The living participants aren’t meant to show any grief – it’s supposed to be a party. Women trying to conceive take bits of the old shroud to keep under their mattresses.
Recently, some Malagasy have objected to the custom, saying it’s unchristian, but many others say that there’s nothing remotely unchristian about it. The Roman Catholic Church in the country doesn’t oppose it, either. One benefit people cite is that the ceremony keeps people well-behaved, in the hope that that one day their families will honour them in turn.
The little hair-like projections lining the inside of your nose keep beating for up to twenty hours after you die.
Known as 'cilia' (Latin for ‘eyelashes’) they waft mucus and dust out of the nose and into the throat. They beat like oars up to 16 times a second. Scientists who recently studied 100 cadavers found that not only did they keep moving for up to 20 hours, but they slowed down at a consistent pace, regardless of any external factors. This discovery could help forensics investigators work out when someone has died.
Living sperm cells have been retrieved from dead men up to 36 hours after their deaths, in a procedure called ‘Posthumous sperm retrieval’.
Skin cells can stay alive for days after you die, as they can get their support through osmosis from the atmosphere and not from the blood.
Santa Muerte (Saint Death) is worshipped in Mexico by those who believe ‘god helps the good, the devil helps the bad'.
Only five people were killed in the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Maschalismos is the practice of physically rendering the dead incapable of rising or haunting the living.
James II banned both football and golf on pain of death. At least one golfer was hanged for the offence.
In Armenia people mourn wearing sky blue to express the hope that their loved ones are now in Heaven.
John Ainsworth Horrocks, the man who introduced camels to Australia, was shot by his own camel. He died of his injuries.