“From the cradle to the coffin underwear comes first” – Bertolt Brecht

What? Is my coffin not stylish enough?

Dead people can be so cliquish, particularly when it comes to who they are buried with.  And they get unruly about it, making all manner of fuss and messing up an otherwise neat and tidy burial vault.  In particular, dead folks don’t seem to like sharing their eternal resting space with suicides, which seems rather unfair as social ostracization often seems to have led to suicide in the first place.  Dead people aren’t much nicer than the living, I suppose.  No sense of irony either. We have ample evidence of this in a series of 19th Century cases of disturbing the peace in cemeteries ranging from Barbados to the Baltic Isle of Oesel to Suffolk and Stamford, England.  Dead people just need to get over themselves and learn to share.

It is not generally known, that in Barbados there is a mysterious vault, in which no one now dares to deposit the dead. It is in a churchyard near the sea-side. In 1807 the first coffin that was deposited in it was that of a Mrs. Goddard; in 1808 a Miss A. M. Chase was placed in it; and in 1812 Miss D. Chase. In the end of 1812 the vault was opened for the body of the Honourable T. Chase; but the three first coffins were found in a confused state, having been apparently tossed from their places. Again was the vault opened to receive the body of an infant, and the four coffins, all of lead, and very heavy, were much disturbed. In 1816 a Mr. Brewster’s body was placed in the vault, and again great disorder was apparent in the coffins. In 1819 a Mr. Clarke was placed in the vault, and, as before, the coffins were in confusion. Each time that the vault was opened the coffins were replaced in their proper situations, that is, three on the ground, side by side, and the others laid on them. The vault was then regularly closed; the door (and a massive stone which required six or seven men to move) was cemented by masons; and though the floor was of sand, there were no marks of footsteps or water. The last time the vault was opened was in 1819; Lord Combermere was then present, and the coffins were found thrown confusedly about the vault; some with the heads down, and others up. What could have occasioned this phenomenon? In no other vault in the island has this ever occurred. Was it an earthquake which occasioned it, or the effects of an inundation in the vault? (Alexander, 1833, p161-162)

Now, the Chase family vault had been opened a number of times prior to 1812, and no disturbance of the coffins already interred there was noted.  On July 16, 1812, Dorcas Chase, a young lady who was said to have starved herself to death owing to her father’s unmitigated cruelty had her coffin placed in the vault.  That’s when the dead stopped resting in peace, apparently discomfited by her presence.  When next the vault was opened, the coffins were found in complete disarray, local legend suggesting that this was in effort to expel the recently deceased Dorcas Chase.  Evidently, Ms. Chase’s eternal resting-mates needed a little perspective – it’s not like they weren’t all rotting and smelled equally bad.  Heck, Dorcas was the freshest corpse of the lot, so was undoubtedly less fragrant.  On the Isle of Oessel in the Baltic in 1844, the wealthy Buxhoewden family vault was repeatedly found to be in an inexplicable state of disarray each time it was opened.  A casket even had its lid left slightly ajar, out of which the investigators could see a shriveled hand.  That shriveled hand belonged to none other than a deceased Buxhoewden family member who had recently committed suicide.

About the same time, a member of the Buxhoewden family died. At his funeral, during the reading in the chapel of the service for the dead, what seemed groans and other strange noises were heard from beneath, to the great terror of some of the assistants, the servants especially. The horses attached to the hearse and to the mourning-coaches were sensibly affected, but not so violently as some of the others had been. After the interment, three or four of those who had been present, bolder than their neighbors, descended to the vault. While there they heard nothing; but they found, to their infinite surprise, that, of the numerous coffins which had been deposited there in due order side by side, almost all had been displaced and lay in a confused pile. They sought in vain for any cause that might account for this. The doors were always kept carefully fastened, and the locks showed no signs of having been tampered with. The coffins were replaced in due order. This incident caused much talk, and, of course, attracted additional attention to the chapel and the alleged disturbances. Children were left to watch the horses when any were fastened in its vicinity; but they were usually too much frightened to remain; and some of them even alleged that they had seen some dark-looking specters hovering in the vicinity. The stories, however, related by them on this latter head were set down—reasonably enough, perhaps—to account of their excited fears. But parents began to scruple about taking their children to the cemetery at all (Owen, 1859, p263-264).

While there is no mention in the Suffolk case of an interred suicide that precipitated the event, the essentials of the tale are the same, and we can only presume some sort of undesirable was intended as a resident, to which the dead equivalent of “mean girls” responded accordingly.

In England there was a parallel occurrence to this some years ago at Staunton, in Suffolk. It is stated that on opening a vault there, several leaden coffins, with wooden cases, which had been fixed on biers, were found displaced, to the great consternation of the villagers. The coffins were again placed as before, and the vault properly closed, when again another of the family dying, they were a second time found displaced; and two years after that they were not only found all off their biers, but one coffin (so heavy as to require eight men to raise it) was found on the fourth step which led down to the vaults, and it seemed perfectly certain that no human hand had done this. As yet no one has satisfactorily accounted for the Barbadian or the Staunton wonder (Lang, 1907, p386).

Yet another 19th Century case was reported in Stamford, England, and as the family was anxious to have the matter hushed up, it would not be surprising to discover that some ne’er-do-well in the family tree had been slipped into the crypt.

As attention has been directed to this rather curious and perhaps novel subject, I beg to add an instance which occurred within my own knowledge and recollection (some twenty years ago) in the parish of Gretford, near Stamford, a small village, of which my father was the rector. Twice, if not thrice, the coffins in a vault were found on reopening it to have been disarranged. The matter excited some interest in the village at the time, and, of course, was a fertile theme for popular superstition; but I think it was hushed up out of respect to the family to whom the vault belonged. A leaden coffin is a very heavy thing indeed; some six men can with difficulty carry it. Whether it can float is a question not very difficult to determine. If it will, it seems a natural, indeed the only explanation of the phenomenon, to suppose that the vault has somehow become filled with water (Paley, 1867, p371).

Sadly, it seems that there is a pecking order among the dead.  I always figured the benefits to shuffling off this mortal coil would be, well, a cessation to the shuffling for one, but also a relative degree of equality in the afterlife, given that all our petty mortal concerns would seem just so darn mortal.  Now, I’ve got to worry about fitting in with those whom I’m buried with?  Apparently, John Donne’s observation that “Death comes equally to us all, and makes us all equal when it comes” is not entirely accurate.

Alexander, James Edward, Sir, 1803-1885. Transatlantic Sketches, Comprising Visits to the Most Interesting Scenes In North And South America, And the West Indies: With Notes On Negroslavery And Canadian Emigration. London: R. Bentley, 1833.
Lang, A. “Death’s Deeds: A Bi-located Story”. Folklore Society (Great Britain). Publications v61. London: W. Glaisher, ltd, 1907.
Owen, Robert Dale, 1801-1877. Footfalls On the Boundary of Another World. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & co.,1859.
Paley, F.A.  “Disturbance of Coffins in Vaults”. Notes And Queries 3:12. London [etc.]: Oxford University Press [etc.], 1867.