How to Tell if You're Dead

The following is an article from the book Uncle John’s Perpetually Pleasing Bathroom Reader.

Modern medicine makes it easy to determine if someone who looks dead really is dead— not in a coma or otherwise still alive. In the old days, it wasn’t so easy. Here’s a look at some of the methods doctors devised, along with a look at what prompted their creation in the first place.


In 1905, a British social reformer named William Tebb wrote a book titled Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented. Tebb was a bit of a crank— before taking up this cause he’d spent decades campaigning against the smallpox vaccine, arguing that sanitation, not inoculation, was the only cure for the deadly disease. But there’s no question that in his day, the public’s fear of premature burial was very real. People repeated anecdotal tales of “dead” people reviving at the morgue or at their own funerals, and wondered how many hadn’t revived in time, and had instead died a slow, suffocating death in the claustrophobic blackness of a coffin buried six feet underground.

Tebb’s book was full of such stories, and was well-known among people obsessed with being buried alive. In the United States, a group called the Society for Prevention of Premature Encoffinment, Burial, or Cremation donated copies to public libraries, “hoping that they may be carefully and universally read.” However unlikely premature burial might have been, in an age when physicians had little more than primitive stethoscopes to help distinguish the living from the dead, mistakes were certainly possible. Given that the fear of premature burial was so widespread, doctors were at great pains to find more effective techniques for diagnosing death. Tebb described a number of the methods they came up with in his book. Few were very effective, but they did show a lot of imagination. Here are seven of the weirdest ones.


Certain types of leeches feed only on living hosts, so physicians applied them to the “supposed dead” to see if they really were. If the leeches attached themselves to the patient’s body and were able to drink blood, the theory went, the patient was still

The problem with the leech method was that if the person’s pulse was so faint as to be undetectable, their blood flow might not be strong enough to feed a leech, resulting in a false diagnosis of death. Webb’s book contained an account of a woman who failed the leech test and was presumed dead, only to regain consciousness while being wrapped in her burial shroud before her funeral. “She opened her eyes and in a hollow voice said to the nurse, ‘What are you doing here? I am not dead. Get away with you!’” Webb wrote. “She recovered, and felt no inconvenience other than a deafness, which lasted about two months.”


Invented by a French physician named M. Josat, these clamps were ordinary surgical forceps with special clawed ends designed to inflict terrible pain when attached to the nipples. The pain was thought to be severe enough to wake any living person from the deepest sleep. “This method held premier place as a means of distinguishing real from apparent death until it was demonstrated that subjects under profound hysteria were as indifferent to this painfully acute process as the dead,” Tebb wrote.


In this test, the physician held a lit match to one of the patient’s fingers, not to inflict pain but to see if the resulting burn formed a blister. The theory was that a living body would form a blister, but a dead one wouldn’t. A similar test described in the British Medical Journal in 1896 called for pouring boiling water on the back of the forearm of the allegedly deceased. “If life is present, the boiling water will soon and unfailingly raise a blister,” Dr. J. Milford Barnett of Belfast wrote. Blister tests had to be discarded when “dead” people who didn’t blister revived and made full recoveries.


This method worked by testing whether the muscles of the body twitched or contracted in response to electric stimulation. The living do; the dead don’t. Only problem: The muscles of dead bodies can continue to contract until rigor mortis sets in several hours after death. Even if the test wasn’t foolproof as a test of life, it could still be effective as a tool against premature burial, by delaying the burial of any body until well after it had stopped twitching in response to electrical stimulus, giving the “dead” additional time to revive.


If you’ve ever had your pupils dilated during an eye exam, the drops the physician put in your eyes were likely atropine or its synthetic equivalent. The eyes of dead people don’t dilate in response to atropine… at least not if they’ve been dead for more than half an hour. Because both the living and the newly dead can test positive for life, this test, like the electric current test, became one for preventing premature burial, by delaying the pronouncement of death until after the dead person’s eyes stopped dilating.


Fluorescein is a green fluorescent substance that did nothing when injected into the body of a dead person. When injected into a living person, using a method developed by one Dr. Icard, a French physician, it gave the body a yellowish discoloration similar to jaundice while also causing the eyes to turn a vivid green. “The whole of the eye is said to assume a clear green tinge, the pupil almost disappears, and the eye looks as if it were a brilliant emerald set in the face,” Tebb wrote. “In two hours all the phenomena disappear.” This test had two major defects: 1) It relied on the circulation of blood to distribute the fluorescein from the injection site to the rest of the body, and a living person who was so ill as to be mistaken for dead was unlikely to have normal circulation. And 2) the negative side effects associated with injection of fluorescein included anaphylactic shock, cardiac arrest, and even sudden death— meaning that persons might be killed by the test that was supposed to determine if they were still alive.


As Tebb himself acknowledged in his book, the only way to really be sure that someone was dead was to wait for putrefaction to set in— dead bodies rot; living bodies do not. In Munich, Frankfurt, and a few other German cities, the authorities established a system of “waiting mortuaries” to make premature burial all but impossible. When a person was pronounced dead by a physician, instead of being buried quickly, as was the custom, the bodies were delivered in their coffins to a waiting mortuary and left there for several days until the unmistakable signs of rot began to set in.

Waiting mortuaries, also known as “hospitals for the dead,” were staffed by medically trained watchmen 24 hours a day. Coffins were left open, and a ring attached by a cord to a bell system was placed on the finger of the supposed deceased. “The warning bell is so sensitive that the least shake of the corpse sets it in motion,” Tebb wrote. “Various causes may agitate the bell, and the waking of a corpse is a very rare occurrence. Nevertheless, the caretaker at once goes to ascertain the cause of alarm, and, having assured himself that the corpse preserves all the signs of death, he readjusts the cord.” But if the corpse did show signs of stirring, medical aid as well as food, drinks, and even cigars could be administered at once.


In his book, Tebb argued for legislation making it illegal to bury the dead until unmistakable signs of putrefaction had set in, and called for the government to build waiting mortuaries in every community in Great Britain. Neither of these calls were heeded— the British medical establishment never did accept the idea that premature burial was as common as Tebb claimed it was. And for people who did fear such a fate, cheaper solutions were at hand: They could arrange to be autopsied, embalmed, cremated, or to have their jugular vein severed before burial. Any of these would have precluded the possibility of regaining consciousness in the grave. Tebb lived to the age of 86, and when he died in 1917— or at least he appeared to be dead— his will instructed that his body be cremated after “unmistakable evidence of decomposition” became apparent. His wishes were honored: He was cremated a week later.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Perpetually Pleasing Bathroom Reader. The 26th annual edition of Uncle John’s wildly successful series is all-new and jam-packed with the BRI’s patented mix of fun and information.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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