Raising the Dead

18 Apr

Noelia Serna was rushed to a hospital in Cali, Colombia after suffering a heart attack. She was 45 years old and also suffered from multiple sclerosis. She was admitted to the intensive care unit in critical condition but survived for only 10 hours. She was pronounced dead and transported to the funeral home for burial preparation. So far so good.

Approximately two hours later, attendant Jaime Aullon was preparing to inject the embalming fluid when he noticed Noelia move her right arm. I would suspect that freaked him out. It turns out that she was indeed still alive. I’m not sure what ultimately happened to Noelia since I could not find any more information on the story but it does raise an interesting question as to how does one go about determining the presence of death.

This has been a problem throughout history. Prior to the advent of the EKG, which is a method of determining whether there is cardiac electrical activity or not, determining death was not always straightforward. Any disease process, such as the heart attack that Noelia suffered, where the heart rate and blood pressure are very low, can be mistaken for death. The victim’s breathing is shallow and weak, the pulse is slow and virtually undetectable, and the skin takes on a dusky hue. Under these circumstances the victim indeed appears dead. This can happen with all forms of shock such as after a heart attack, a serious infection, or a drug overdose.

An EKG can help determine death but not uncommonly the heart continues to have some electrical activity after death and this can sometimes linger for many minutes if not hours. It’s odd to see an intensive care unit patient who is essentially dead with no pulse, no blood pressure, no heart sounds through a stethoscope, and no brain activity but still with electrical impulses bouncing across the screen. It happens. We call this electro-mechanical dissociation. There is electrical activity but no resultant mechanical beating of the heart.

Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, there were no EKGs, no stethoscopes to listen for heart beats, and no real method for determining death. So situations such as arose with Noelia were not uncommon. Several unique and bizarre techniques were devised. Tobacco smoke enemas, vigorous nipple pinching either manually or with pliers, hot pokers shoved into various bodily orifices, and aggressive tongue pulling were all used to determine if the “corpse” was truly dead. Tongue pulling was so popular that a device was developed that clamped the tongue and yanked it in and out when a crank was turned. This continued for several hours and, when the victim didn’t complain, a pronouncement of death occurred. As you would guess, the occasional “corpse” rose from the dead during such procedures.

Many physicians of that era felt that the only true way to ascertain death was to await the appearance of putrefaction. Since families preferred not having rotting corpses in the house, a system of “vitae dubiae asylums” or “waiting mortuaries,” was established. The suspected dead person would be placed in a warm spot (to hasten the decomposition) in these institutions until decay appeared, after which they could be buried. If they were indeed alive, they could signal this by pulling on a string, which was attached to a bell. Since corpses can manifest twitches and jerks from involuntary contractions of the decomposing muscles, false alarms were not uncommon. A disconcerting event to the person charged with overseeing the mortuary, I would suspect.


6 responses to “Raising the Dead

  1. Pat Brown

    April 18, 2010 at 8:59 am

    I don’t know how true it is, but I’ve heard of people having bells installed, with a cord inside the casket, in case they awoke after burial. I think a lot of people lived in terror of being buried alive. A reasonable fear for sure. LOL.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      April 18, 2010 at 9:08 am

      Yes, that’s true. The coffin would be closed, the lid with a hole in it. A bell would be secured to the lid and attached to a cord that would pass through the hole and tied to the person’s wrist. If they awoke and moved the bell would ring. Or of they had twitches or movements as the muscles decomposed. This set up was an integral part of the famous UK train robbery–chronicled in Michael Crichton’s excellent book The Great Train Robbery.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      April 18, 2010 at 9:16 am

      Yes they did. And yes they found a few “premature deaths” that way.


  2. Teresa Reasor

    April 18, 2010 at 9:13 am

    As always a very interesting blog, Dr. Lyle.
    Wasn’t in the Victorian Era that they put bells on the graves so if the deceased awoke he/she could pull the string and ring the bell.

    Wonder what the percentage is of this happening.

    Write on,
    Teresa R.


  3. Kate B.

    April 18, 2010 at 8:07 pm

    I knew a I guy who worked in a funeral home and he had lots of stories about corpses moving, sighing, etc. Sometimes they would even moan, which would freak me out. The final straw came one day when a body sat up under the sheet. He tore out of there and never went back. I don’t blame him. Very Edgar Allan Poe.


  4. L.J. Sellers

    April 21, 2010 at 8:16 am

    Thanks for another great post. You always get me thinking about ways to kill people or situations to include in my next novel.



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