You’ve seen the headlines: “Dead Man Wakes Up At Own Funeral”, or “Woman Startled To Wake Up In Morgue.” It always makes it feel like one day you’re going to wake up in your worst Kill Bill nightmare, buried alive in a fancy casket. But how often does this actually happen?
The trend of supposed corpses not actually turning out to be dead was big in the Victorian Era: or at least fear of it was, leading to the creepy idea of the ‘safety coffin’. These were coffins that linked the corpse (or potentially living person) in their coffin to a bell on the surface that they could ring if they did in fact, wake up.
However while these are a grimly whimsical idea, there’s no evidence that they were ever successfully used to save a prematurely buried person, or that they saw widespread use at all. Occasional stories told of coffins being unearthed only to find scratches on the inside of the coffin and the corpse settled in an unusual position, but most ‘evidence’ of premature burial was more easily put down to the effects of decomposition.
Premature burial still does happen occasionally, however – though you’ll be happy to note it’s not all that common in Australia.
The most recent example concerned a man in India who woke up in the middle of the family’s pre-funeral rites. The elderly, 95-year-old man had fainted earlier, and upon being unable to be revived a doctor called to attend pronounced him dead — though it turns out that call was made a little prematurely.
Earlier this year a woman in South Africa was wrongly pronounced dead after a car crash, with the paramedics later blaming the mix up on their equipment.
In one odd case, a Kenyan man appears to have accidentally Romeo and Julieted himself, when the insecticide he drank caused him to appear dead only to later miraculously wake up in the morgue.
One of the most harrowing examples of this comes from Greece, where in 2014 a woman was found to have been buried alive and asphyxiated in her coffin. The mistake was only discovered when children playing near the cemetery heard her screaming from within the earth.
While whisperings of similar things happening in Australia exist around the Internet, solid proof is harder to find. The fact is this is more likely to happen in countries with less rigorous medical practices, where the declaration of death is able to be made by people with less or no medical training.
The Victorian Human Tissue Act 1982 (largely dealing with organ donation and harvesting) defines death as:
- irreversible cessation of circulation of blood in the body of the person; or
- irreversible cessation of all function of the brain of the person.
Most states have definitions similar to this one. As for when a person is legally dead, most Australian states require a medical practitioner (ie a doctor) to declare death, though some also extend this to nurses, midwives and qualified paramedics.
While these kinds of cases are strongly dependent on the individual and circumstances, there are more cases of premature declaration of death in the latter cases, such as one in Victoria in 2012 when paramedics wrongly declared a car crash victim dead. SES volunteers later detected signs of life, and the man had to be rushed on to hospital.
However in Australia, it’s highly unlikely for this kind of event to occur. Many states also require medical tests to determine death before organs can be harvested for donation — so if you’re really worried, maybe it’s time to register yourself as an organ donor.