Life at Last Sight: A Window into Death

In the 21st century, it’s not unusual to find people living in glass houses. Literally in every sense of the word. Stranger still is the notion of glass coffins. Actually, it isn’t all that strange with the Victorians during the 19th century. Death naturally occurred so often among these people that mourning became a rite. With mourning came worries about preservation of the dead. The rise of post-mortem photography and memento mori jewelry proved successful as people found parting with loved ones too painful. The prevalence of theft didn’t disappear out of the respect for the dead.

One man by the name of Almond Dunbar Fisk decided to patent an iron air-tight coffin to combat unlawful resurrection. At the top, a glass window displayed the dead while the form fitting sarcophagus inspired lower half conformed to the shape of the human body. Grave robbers would be deterred from pulling the body out through such a small opening at the top. Among the wealthy this option became quite popular as many were buried in finery.

As the demand for Fisk’s one-of-a-kind coffin grew other inventors came up with equally astounding coffins. To represent the fashion of Victorian mourning, the coffins ranged in decor such as angels, roses, berries and leaves. Upon closer look, a coffin often bore the shape of a shroud with elegant draping to boot. However, purchasing one was quite pricey and the most elaborate was a low number in the hundred dollar category. While bodies residing in this metal housing found rest, research suffers from the inability to ascertain the time of death due to its air-tight factor. The decomposition of the body is hindered. Many times bodies have been found still on the verge of decaying. 

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Fisk Airtight Coffin of Cast or Raised Metal
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Victorian Glass Coffins

Early August last year, the Historic Oakwood Cemetery had the pleasure of re-interring 12 unmarked graves that came from the entrance of North Carolina State University’s Carter-Finley Stadium. The graves were found buried on an unremote hill along Gate 6 in an area referred to as Cemetery 2. The graveyard was a mere ¼ acre according to a property map in 1938. Among Southerners, the folk cemetery portrays characteristics of the hilltop interment with rudimentary material for grave markers. Several of the graves held remnants of broken glass suggesting the origin came from around the early to mid 1800s. Along with the graves came the dirt from the area which saw a significant amount of discoloration. Unfortunately, not much extensive research has been done due to limited records. The North Carolina State University has two other cemetery sites known as the Lincolnville AME Church Cemetery and Cemetery 1.

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Remnants of the Glass Front Coffins

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The reinterment of these graves is mutually beneficial for North Carolina State University as well as the Historic Oakwood Cemetery. As a public university, the area is always expanding and removal of these relics ensures no disturbance and damage would succumb. The final resting place of these graves is at the latter and it is with every intention that they remain undisturbed for a very long time.

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Hair Comb Found in Remains From Cemetery 2

Scarifying Terms: What Graveyard Shift, Dead Ringer and Wake Means

The 1800’s were surely a macabre time to live in. The notion of death held an ominous cloud over the heads of the upright and dour Victorian citizens. Because medicine was still in its infancy, folks naturally knew next to nothing about the human body. In fact, the discovery of the human body and a slew of creative, albeit radical methods of treatments such as lobotomies and herbal tonics highlighted the times. In those days, when loved ones died, there was a nagging thought that those once lively bodies harboured terrible diseases. Leaving unburied bodies surely meant whatever illnesses could freely inhabit a living person. Also, the colors of death began to change a the physical appearances both outwardly and internally thanks to the minimal use of embalming until later in the century. To ensure the safety of the town, bodies were quickly buried without so much as a blink of an eye.

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Courtesy of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium
Antoine Wiertz: “The Premature Burial” in 1854

No sooner did the good people rid themselves with possible illness then another problem arose. Old stories mention the unearthing of bodies in cemeteries for new graves when space ran out. But an unthinkable horror worse than disease surfaced. A handful of coffins bore scratch marks from the inside as if the dead somehow came back to life and wanted to rejoin the world above. Realistically, medicine and wrongful burials stayed in the premature category, so this happened more than often. Unfortunately, these poor souls suffocated in tight, dark spaces and some were never rescued.

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Courtesy of GloCoNJ.com
A boy was found buried alive in the early 1900’s

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Courtesy of Lauren Ayn Lusk
An illustration of the decease’s hands attached to the life saving contraption

Such is the case of Samuel Jocelyn, a privileged man from Wilmington, North Carolina who found himself entombed in frosty waters after making his way in the dark. Who says love doesn’t kill? It definitely was an end for Jocelyn after a heated fight with his darling new wife. Hastily buried, Jocelyn found himself a victim of a burial gone wrong after his friends dug him up only to find their fun loving pal in life a picture of writhing agony and a body in the most horrible contortion. When the searchers found Jocelyn’s body, it was assumed that he was dead on arrival. But the icy swamp only slowed his heart down enough so that the faint murmurs came close to inaudibility. Alas, the warmth of his new earthly home interrupted his slumber and his last breath drew in the underground abode.

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Courtesy of http://www.geocaching.com
St. James Episcopal Church’s Cemetery

Perhaps the grim author, Edgar Allan Poe, sums up this pandemonium the best in his stories of violent deaths such as “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Premature Burial”. His tales captivated the audience of that time but also instilled a fear and truth about early death and the limited knowledge on the topic.

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An illustrated scene of “The Cask of Amontillado”

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Edgar Allan Poe

It’s right to say that while the Victorians stared death on a regular basis due to illnesses and lack of medicine, their fear spurred ways to combat the issue. When it was discovered that the possibility of being buried alive was very real, a system of bells and strings were became the craze. Unlike today’s six feet under and steel vaults, the dead laid in shallow graves a few inches below with loose soil on top. Some historians say families resorted to leaving the bodies’ hands sticking out of the graves with a string attached to the finger or wrist, while others say the dead laid in dormancy underground. If the bell rang, then a night watchman or “dead ringer” came to the rescue with shovel in tow.

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Courtesy of Monovisions Black and White Photograpy Magazine
Daguerreotypes of Victorian Widows in Mourning

The invention of the “safety coffin” also led to the relief of folks in the latter part of the 19th century. The most known device comes from a man by the name of Count Michel de Karnice Karnicki which he aptly termed “Le Karnice”. Here, the body laid in a rectangular box above ground with a bell and a ball on the outside. If the person was still alive, then their movement and change in breath triggered the bell and ball to sound and move, respectively.
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Courtesy of the New York Academy of Medicine Center for History

On another note, most people regard Henry Ford as the first person to create shift work, but it’s rather a misconception. The third shift came to fruition as night watchmen meandered the premises of the graveyard in hopes of finding the living. The shift lasted from somewhere around late evening to midnight until the early morning. Thankfully, many were found. Some people dispute this tale because another origin of this term comes from sailors working in the dead of night. The eerie calm of night coupled with the imagination’s ability to run wild led to more than a few men quaking till the morning. The shift was a dangerous time because being on a boat in the middle of the night meant that a man could easily fall overboard due to the inability to see clearly at night as he continued his watch or being groggy from no sleep. Nowadays, plenty of people find the “graveyard shift” one of the most challenging things about work.

Another strange tradition stemming from fear of interment has to do with a certain drink. The English took to their ale quite heartily and that mixture coupled with leaden cups would make modern hangovers wilt in shame. The part about the lead is up in the air to historians and science as the maker of drunk men may not be in this element. Only prolonged exposure seems plausible. As the drunkards traverse the dimly lit roads, good samaritans would find them faced down on the ground. These civilians and family members dutifully collected the sloven forms and laid them out on the tables at home in funerary finery awaiting a proper burial. The family would gather round to eat and drink and of course be merry while watching the stranger in curiousity. More than likely, plenty a English man woke up from his stupor and did a little walk of shame home. Dispelling this tale, one can take in another. The roots of a Christian wake goes back to the influences of the Celtic people who would place the dead under a table while the watchers sipped their giddy beverages on the table or elsewhere. Either way, the term “wake” has its roots tied to alcohol.

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Courtesy of http://www.missmementomori.wordpress.com

Nowadays, wakes consist of families and friends gathering in a church or another space of significance where eulogies are given in memory of the deceased and prayers are said. A modern form of a wake resembling the one in the old days can be seen in a romantic tragedy about unattainable love and heartbreak where a certain person believes his love is lost forever. No, it’s not Romeo and Juliet! Here’s a hint: it’s supernatural with vampires and werewolves at odds and in love. The Twilight Saga:Breaking Dawn — Part 1 depicts a scene where Bella Cullen’s family and friends wait for her to wake up from her morphine and venom induced siesta in the middle of the house. Families in the 1800’s and even later without parlors made do by using a bedroom. Bodies laid on beds or in coffins on top of the bed and people came for the viewing.

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