We humans

Ever wondered: “What if I’m buried when I’m just in a coma?”

Sep 12, 2019 /

Not us [shifty eyes]. But just in case a friend was asking, mortician Caitlin Doughty is here to share insider knowledge and eyebrow-raising trivia, and, yes answer that question.

Every day, funeral director Caitlin Doughty receives dozens of questions about death, and the most honest come from kids. In her new book Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs, she answers 35 of their very direct questions. Here’s her response to one about being buried alive.

What if they make a mistake and bury me when I’m just in a coma?

Okay, so to be clear, you don’t want to be buried alive, is that correct? Got it.

Lucky for you, you don’t live in Ye Olden Times! During Ye Olden Times (before the 20th century), doctors had a less-than-flawless track record when it came to declaring people dead. The tests they used to determine if someone was honest-to-God- really-dead were not just low-tech; they were horrifying.

For your enjoyment, here’s a fun sample of the death tests:
*Shoving needles under the toenails, or into the heart or stomach
*Slicing the feet with knives or burning them with red-hot pokers
*Smoke enemas for drowning victims — someone would literally blow smoke up your butt to see if it would warm you up and make you breathe
*Burning the hand or chopping off a finger

And, there’s my personal favorite:
Writing “I am really dead” in invisible ink (made from acetate of lead) on a piece of paper, then putting the paper over the corpse-in-question’s face. According to the inventor of this method, if the body was putrefying, sulfur dioxide would be emitted, thus revealing the message. Unfortunately, sulfur dioxide can also be emitted by living people, like those with decaying teeth. So, it’s possible there were a few false positives.

Two days after Angelo Hays was buried, he was exhumed for an investigation. Examiners found that the “corpse” was still warm, and that Angelo was alive.

If you woke up, breathed or visibly responded to these “tests” — hallelujah! — you weren’t dead. But you might be maimed. And that needle stuck in your heart could actually kill you. What about the poor souls who weren’t put through the battery of stabs, slices and enemas, but were just assumed to be 100 percent dead and sent to the grave?

Take the tale of Matthew Wall, a man living (yes, living) in Braughing, England, in the 16th century. Matthew was thought to be dead, but was lucky enough to have his pallbearers slip on wet leaves and drop the coffin on the way to his burial. As the story goes, when the coffin was dropped, Matthew awakened and knocked on the lid to be released. To this day, every October 2 is celebrated as Old Man’s Day to commemorate Matthew’s revival. He lived, by the way, for 24 more years. With stories like that, it’s no wonder that certain cultures had extreme taphophobia, or fear of being buried alive.

Matthew Wall was lucky that his body never reached the grave before he was discovered to be alive, but Angelo Hays was not. In 1937 — true, 1937 is not quite Ye Olden Times, but at least it’s way before you were born — Angelo Hays of France was in a motorcycle accident. When doctors couldn’t find his pulse, he was pronounced dead. He was buried quickly, and his own parents were not allowed to see his disfigured body. Angelo would have remained buried if it wasn’t for the life insurance company’s suspicions of foul play. Two days after Angelo was buried, he was exhumed for an investigation. Upon inspecting the “corpse,” examiners found that it was still warm, and that Angelo was alive.

The theory is that Angelo had been in a very deep coma which slowed his breathing way, way down. It was that slow breathing that allowed him to stay alive while buried. (Note: If you’re buried alive and breathing normally, you’re likely to die from suffocation. A person can live on the air in a coffin for a little over five hours, tops. If you start hyperventilating, panicked that you’ve been buried alive, the oxygen will likely run out sooner.) Angelo recovered, lived a full life and even invented a “security coffin” with a radio transmitter and a toilet.

Media and TV shows often throw around terms like “coma” and “brain-dead” interchangeably — not true!

Luckily, if you fall into a coma today, in the 21st century, there are many, many ways to make sure that you are good and dead before you’re moved on to burial. But while the tests may show that you are technically alive, your new status may be small comfort to you and your kin. Media and TV shows often throw around terms like “coma” and “brain-dead” interchangeably: “Chloe was my true love, and now she will never wake from her coma. I must decide whether to pull the plug.” This Hollywood version of medicine can make it seem like those conditions are the same, just one step away from death. Not true!

Of the two, the one you really don’t want to be is brain-dead. (I mean, neither is great, let’s be honest.) But once you’re brain-dead, there is no coming back. Not only have you lost all the upper brain functions that create your memories and behaviors and allow you to think and talk, but you have also lost all the involuntary stuff your lower brain does to keep you alive, like controlling your heart, respiration, nervous system, temperature and reflexes. There are gobs of biological actions controlled by your brain so that you don’t have to constantly remind yourself: “Stay alive, stay alive.”

If you are brain-dead, these functions are being performed by hospital equipment like ventilators and catheters. You cannot recover from brain death. If you’re brain-dead, you’re dead. There is no gray area (<brain matter joke): either you are brain-dead or you are not. If you are in a coma, on the other hand, you are legally very much alive. In a coma, you still have brain function, which doctors can measure by observing electrical activity and your reactions to external stimuli. In other words, your body continues to breathe, your heart beats, etc. Even better, you can, potentially, recover from a coma and regain consciousness.

We now have a whole battery of scientific tests to confirm that someone is really, truly brain-dead.

Okay, but what if I fall into a deep, deep coma? Will someone eventually pull the plug and send me off to the mortuary? Will I be trapped in both a casket and in the prison of my mind? No. We now have a whole battery of scientific tests to confirm that someone is not just in a coma, but really, truly brain-dead.

These tests include but are not limited to:
* Seeing if your pupils are reactive. When a bright light is shined into them, do they contract? Brain-dead people’s eyes don’t do anything.
* Dragging a cotton swab over your eyeball. If you blink, you’re alive!
* Testing your gag reflex. Your breathing tube might be moved in and out of your throat, to see if you gag. Dead people don’t gag.
* Injecting ice water into your ear canal. If doctors do this to you and your eyes don’t flick quickly from side to side, it’s not looking good.
* Checking for spontaneous respiration. If you are removed from a ventilator, CO2 builds up in your system, essentially suffocating you. When blood CO2 levels reach 55 mm Hg, a living brain will usually tell the body to spontaneously breathe. If that doesn’t happen, your brain stem is dead.
* An EEG, or electroencephalogram, which is an all-or-nothing test. Either there is electrical activity in your brain or there isn’t. Dead brains have zero electrical activity.
* A CBF, or cerebral blood flow study. A radioactive isotope is injected into your bloodstream. After a period of time, a radioactive counter is held over your head to see if blood is flowing to your brain. If there is blood flow to the brain, the brain cannot be called dead.
* Administering atropine IV. A living patient’s heart rate will accelerate, but a brain-dead patient’s heartbeat will not change.

A person has to fail a lot of tests to be declared brain-dead. And more than one doctor has to confirm brain-death. Only after countless tests and an in-depth physical exam will you go from “coma patient” to “brain-dead” patient. Nowadays, it’s not just some dude with a needle poised over your heart and “I am really dead” scrawled on a scrap of paper. It is highly unlikely that your living brain will slip through the cracks and that you’ll be sent away from the hospital in a coma.

Even if you were, there is no funeral director or medical examiner I know who can’t tell the difference between a living person and a corpse. Having seen thousands of dead bodies in my career, let me tell you — dead people are very dead in a very predictable way. Not that my words sound all that comforting. Or scientific. But I feel confident saying that this is not going to happen to you. On your list of “Freaky Ways to Die,” you can move “buried alive — coma” down to just below “terrible gopher accident.”

Excerpted with permission from the new book Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Big Questions from Tiny Mortals about Death by Caitlin Doughty. Published by W.W. Norton & Co., Inc. © 2019 Caitlin Doughty.

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