While the fear of being buried alive was a prevalent fear that had some legitimacy before the dawn of modern healthcare, today that fear — at least in countries with access to modern medical science — is unfounded. In centuries past, the fear of premature burial was so prevalent that Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki developed a bell system that enabled someone who was buried alive to alert those above ground that there had been a ghastly mistake.
Giving farther evidence to the fact that people were prematurely buried is T.M. Montgomery, who supervised the disinterment and moving of the remains at the Fort Randall Cemetery in 1898. He reported that “nearly 2% of those exhumed were no doubt victims of suspended animation.”
While being buried alive is impossible for an embalmed body, I’ve always had this fear that I’ll pick up a deceased person, bring them back to our prep room only to discover that they are still very much alive. The fear is real enough that when I embalm someone I generally wait a minute or so after I make my first incision to see if there are any faint signs of life before I raise the artery and vein. So far, I — and every funeral director I know — have never encountered a still living supposed “corpse.”
There have been modern-day cases were someone has been prematurely pronounced dead. Here’s one such case:
Mrs Banks, 61, was found unconscious in bed after taking a drugs overdose on New Year’s Eve. She was discovered by her husband, Claude, at their home in Stonely, near Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire and subsequently pronounced dead by David Roberts, the family’s GP.
Three hours later, Ken Davison, an undertaker who knew the Banks family, saw a vein twitch and heard her snore in the mortuary at Hinchingbrooke Hospital, Huntingdon, just as he was preparing to put her in a refrigerated body tray.
But, thank goodness, Mrs. Banks was discovered alive before any attempt was made to either embalm or bury her. Because of modern healthcare, I’ve always regarded any reports of someone being “embalmed alive” with a high degree of skepticism. So when I saw this title, “Russian woman embalmed alive in deadly hospital mistake” floating around the internet, I thought it was an Onion article.
This per the often unreliable tabloid The Sun, “Ekaterina Fedyaeva was said to be undergoing routine surgery at a hospital in Ulyanovsk, in the Volga Federal District of Russia, when the hospital provided her on a formalin drip, which contains formaldehyde and is used to prevent corpses from decomposing.”
I’m still hoping that this is some elaborate hoax. But it doesn’t seem to be. This is a once in a billion kind of mistake that could have only been made through a confluence of poorly designed and poorly practiced medical protocols.
Here’s some more details:
“Her legs were moving, she had convulsions, her whole body was shaking,” said her mother, according to The Sun. “I put socks on her, then a robe, then a blanket but she was shivering to such an extent, I can’t even describe it.”
Her mother also said that no doctor ever checked on her after coming out of surgery.
“This is pure murder,” said Galina Baryshnikova, according to reports. “[It] was simply eroding her body from inside.”
She said she begged doctors to help but they told her to go home.
“For 14 hours after surgery she was living with this formalin and they did nothing,” she said.
She said a doctor eventually admitted to the blunder but did not specifically reveal the cause of her condition.
Fedyaeva was later transported to a hospital in Moscow, where she ultimately died. A criminal investigation into the cause of her death is said to be underway. — Fox 32
Pure formalin is a much strong solution that the embalming fluid we use on dead bodies.
Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring gas that is highly dissolvable in water. When it is dissolved in water, it’s called “formalin”, which is the liquid that was intravenously given to Ekaterina. Formalin is 40% formaldehyde.
Embalming fluid is rated by formaldehyde index: strong embalming fluid has an index of 28% to 36%, medium fluid has an index of 19% to 27%, and weak fluid is 10% to 18% index. Even our strongest embalming fluid has less formaldehyde than pure formalin, and even much less when we mix the embalming fluid with water.
After we mix the embalming fluid with water, the solution has a much lower amount of formaldehyde, often around 2%. In other words, what was injected into Ekaterina — if it was formalin with 40% formaldehyde — could have been up to 20 times stronger than the embalming fluid I would use in my prep room.
With arterial fluid that is 2%, I can effectively harden and preserve most cases. This is how it happens: “Formaldehyde or glutaraldehyde fixes tissue or cells by irreversibly connecting a primary amine group in a protein molecule with a nearby nitrogen in a protein or DNA molecule through a -CH2- linkage called a Schiff base” (Wikipedia). To put it simply: formaldehyde literally rips apart tissue on a molecular level.
A slow, intravenous drip of formalin would have ripped apart the insides of Ekaterina Fedyaeva. This is absolutely torturous. The stuff of nightmares. And this leads to the main question: HOW DID SHE LIVE FOR 14 HOURS? The potency of this fluid is extreme, and — although I have no idea how long one should live with a bag of formalin in their system — I have a hard time wrapping my head around 14 hours.
The other factor that adds a twist to this story is that formalin has a potent smell. The kind of smell that burns when you breathe it in. However or whoever put formalin in the IV bag (and I don’t know the protocols for filling IV bags), were either without a sense of smell, extremely dense, or they did it on purpose. My guess is that murder is a legitimate possibility in this case.
While I hope this story isn’t true, if it is true it seems that Ekaterina wasn’t conscious during this travesty. I can only hope that was indeed the case.
Consider supporting my work by buying my book, “Confessions of a Funeral Director.” Click the picture below to read more:
A couple years ago, we were serving a young couple who had just lost their two-year-old son “John” to cancer. The day of John’s funeral came, attracting a number of his parent’s friends from both work and church who were there – not because they knew John (he had spent a good part of his life in the hospital) – but because they wanted to support his parents.
The viewing started, people began filing through the funeral home, and all of a sudden, I saw that John’s mother was missing from the receiving line. I looked around the funeral home and found her back in our office, crying. Without me asking what was wrong she blurted out, “I hate this. And I hate what people are telling me. This didn’t happen for a reason. God doesn’t have a plan in this. And thinking about John in heaven doesn’t make me feel any better. I want him here with me now.”
I didn’t have anything to say. So I waited in silence for her to say what she needed to say. I didn’t introject my own thoughts, many as they may be (I do have a grad degree in theology and a certification in thanatology). I didn’t diminish her feelings. Even though I felt slightly uncomfortable as a sounding board for her frustrations, I didn’t say anything. I did what I’ve learned to do over years of comforting grieving people: I allowed her space to say what she needed to say. I listened.
After she was done saying what she needed to say, she asked me, “Do you have some coffee?”
“I don’t, but if you tell me what you want I’ll go to Dunkin Donuts and get it for you.”
“Medium hot coffee with cream and four sugars.”
For various reasons, we like to use death as a classroom; one of life’s major learning experience that affords those who are experiencing it some valuable lessons. And death can be a classroom, but let’s be clear about one thing: you are NEVER the teacher. It’s not your job to interpret tragedy with platitudes like “this happened for a reason” and “God has a plan.” If anything, it’s our job to create a sanctuary, a refuge where those who are grieving can say what they need to say, do what they need to do, and know that no matter what, we are there for them, listening to them and loving them.
Sometimes, the bereaved use their grief as a platform. That is their right. If your son dies from gang violence and you make it your mission to do what you can, that’s your right to say what you need to say. If your daughter dies from an overdose, and you make it your mission to do what you can, that’s your right to do what you need to do. If your mom dies from cancer, and you make it your mission to do what you can, that’s your right. And I’ll respect it.
If your classmates die during a school shooting, and you make it your mission to do what you can, that’s your right. It’s your right to use your experience of grief as a platform, even if it makes others uncomfortable. Even if it makes others angry. Even if it’s a politically charged topic. And I’ll respect it because I’m not here to set up a classroom and tell you what you need to think, how you need to feel and what you need to do. I’m here to give you space to think what you need, feel how you want, and do what you need to do.
We provide the refuge for the grieving. We provide the space for them to say what they need to say. And we listen. Because if death is ever a classroom, the bereaved are the ones who have the right to teach.
I watched in horror as the details unfolded surrounding the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Seventeen students. Dead.
I can’t imagine the terror. I don’t want to imagine what the student body experienced during the six-minute shooting spree. And I hope that I never know the pain and horror of being a parent who suddenly loses their child to a school shooting.
On March 24th, 2018 some student leaders from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School lead March for Our Lives, a student-led demonstration in support of tighter gun control.
Let me be clear: This is a legitimate expression of grief.
Let me also be clear: It’s not our job to tell these kids how they SHOULD be expressing their various expressions of grief.
It’s not our job to diminish their frustration and anger. It’s not our job to question their motives, poke fun at their supposed “liberal stupidity”, or threaten them in any shape or form.
Like the woman who was crying in my office, it might make the rest of us uncomfortable, we might have a lot of opinions about what they’re saying. But this is their time. And I’m going to give them refuge just like I do every week at the funeral home. I’m going to listen, just like I do every week at the funeral home. And if they want me to do something, I’ll hear them out, just like I do every week at my job.
My book has been alive in the world for THREE WHOLE MONTHS!
Like a first time parent of a newborn child, I’ve been fraught with worry since it’s birth. I check on it all too often to make sure it’s still breathing. I’m constantly calling more experienced parents to ask all the questions:
Like the parents of a newborn, you might be tired of me posting photos of it ALL OVER THE INTERNET. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter … everywhere you turn there I am, the proud parent, holding my book child up like it’s the first book to ever be written.
It’s not. I know it’s not. But, for me? It’s my first. And I am proud of it.
I know it won’t live forever, but I’ve got to help it as long as it is. Most books don’t live but a couple years and then they die off into the nothingness of collecting dust on shelves around the world. I know that the dying process usually starts soon after the book’s release, and I’m doing my best to keep this one living as long as I can.
In that light, I’m asking a favor from you:
If you read my book, and you liked it, I’m kindly asking you to help me as I try to raise it to be a contributing citizen of the world.
HERE ARE SOME PRACTICAL WAYS YOU CAN HELP:
ONE: Word of mouth … that mystical, organic, grassroots foundation for the growth of any good product. If you liked it, share it on Facebook, or Instagram, or with your check-out line neighbor at your local Wal-Mart.
TWO: Introduce it to your group. Small groups at church, book clubs, Facebook groups, your local brony chapter. Groups are where books can take off. A friend of mine had his book rocket to a best-seller list just because a youth organization decided to endorse it. It’s the simple things that can go a long way. And you, my friend, no matter how small, or how large your group, can help good things grow because you are powerful.
THREE: Buy one for a family member or friend who you think might benefit from it.
FOUR: Leave a review! On Amazon, Goodreads, on the bathroom stall at McDonald’s. Positive, thoughtful reviews always help other potential buyers. For me, every time I buy a new scalpel for the prep room, I always check the Amazon reviews. Does it cut like promised? Is it ergonomic? Reviews help.
Thank you all!
Amazon is discounting my book by two dollars, from $17.99 to the current price of $15.53. The discounted started on Black Friday and it’s still going as of Tuesday evening. I’m just a very small pawn on Jeff Bezo’s chess board, so I have no control over when these discounts come and go. If you were looking to buy a couple copies for a support group or for friends, or you were waiting for a cheap price (I’m frugal too), this is easily the cheapest option to date.
You can bounce over the book’s Amazon page by clicking HERE.
I’m on Rob Bell’s podcast this week. For those of you who don’t know Rob Bell, he used to have a show on Oprah’s network, and before he was working with Oprah, he was a rather progressive Pastor. He’s easily one of my favorite speakers. I actually flew out to his home studio in West Hollywood to do this interview.
If the Podcast plugin below doesn’t work for you, you can listen to our conversation HERE.
Here’s the hustle of bad religion: The scarier religion makes death (and what comes after it), the more you buy into their message, and the more you’re obedient to their precepts. So much of our death shaming comes from the temples, holy books, and firey teachers of religion that have to heighten your fear to garner your obedience. Death, and what comes after it, has to be horrible to make it all work. On the other hand, once you lose your fear of death (and fear of hell), bad religion loses its power over your mind, and you can gravitate towards healthy religion or none at all.
When the reality of hell comes to a head at funerals, I don’t think we actually think anyone goes to hell. Sure, many religious people believe in hell, but few actually believe THEIR family and THEIR friends and THEIR community go there. I write in my book, that of the thousands of funerals I’ve worked, “I have never once heard a pastor state conclusively that the person they are memorializing was going to hell … pastors have done some fancy preaching for those who have lived less than generous, kind, and loving lives.” Hell may exist as an idea, but — for most — it doesn’t exist as a reality.
Maybe it’s time we jettison the idea too. I mean, have you read some of the ideas of hell? They’re so horrible it’s almost funny. It’s like stuff made up to scare to children …
One. In Dante’s Inferno (a great book that Disney should animate [fingers-crossed]), there are a whole lot of scare-the-disobedience-out-of-you descriptions of hell. My personal favorite? If you were a flatterer in life, you will live in a sea of poop when you die … which means that politicians (who are known to be full of crap) will go to a place as shitty as their promises.
Two. Also of note in Dante’s Inferno: If you commit suicide, you’re turned into a living thorn bush that is constantly eaten by birds. I have not idea if such a punishment is even painful (I mean, maybe I want to be eaten by birds if I’m full of thorns because at least I’m not entirely isolated by my thorniness), but I do know these special types of punishment for suicide helped create the shame culture surrounding suicide. Let’s be clear: suicide (and suicidal attempts) does not deserve punishment from us, or the gods.
Three. Chinese Taoism has a hell funhouse that consists of 19 levels with varying degrees of mutilation. In one such level, you get thrown off a cliff where you’ll eventually land on a ground made of knives. To review: if the impact from falling off a cliff doesn’t kill you, the knives will.
Four. Taoism has another level where you’re continuously dismembered, and THEN crushed by giant rocks, and THEN fed through dismemberment machines, and THEN run over by chariots … just in case the dismemberment, rocks, and machines didn’t hurt enough.
Five. Niflheim in Norse mythology is probably the version that frightens me the most because instead of being hot, it’s VERY, VERY cold. My greatest fear — aside from the existential void of meaninglessness — is not having enough blankets on a cold night. To make Niflheim even more frightening, they added a snake that goes around eating people. Extreme cold. Deadly snakes. Yikes.
Six. Now the Jewish “Gehenna” has some teeth to it. “Gehenna” was a place outside of Jerusalem. At one point in the history of Judaism, some Jewish kings decided to worship the god Moloch, who — didn’t demand wheat, goats, and money like the “nice” gods of the ancients — but babies. They’d heat up a large skillet and threw their children into the skillet in sacrifice to Moloch. When “Gehenna” was mentioned throughout the Bible, the image of hot skillets and burning children is the image that would be conjured in the minds of the Jews.
Seven. Moving on from Gehenna, I present to you Diyu, the Chinese hell with 18 different levels, with each level having a different torture chamber, all of which sound like an S&M dungeon. There’s the chamber of ripping, the chamber of knives, the chamber of ice, the chamber of pounding, and the chamber of uncomfortably tight latex.
Eight. The Babylonians clearly didn’t understand the political value of hell. In fact, it sounds like they were just a bunch of self-loathing Calvinists who believed that all of us deserve it. Because, for the Babylonians, everyone — from the best to the worst — ended up going to the bad place.
Nine. Avici was hell for certain sects of Buddism. It wasn’t eternal like some of the Christian versions, but it still lasted trillions of years. But, unlike most other hells, YOU COULD ACTUALLY DIE IN AVICI. Unfortunately, you’d be reborn in the same place only to suffer torment unto death all over again. It’s basically Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day as a horror movie.
Ten. One of the Hindu ideas of hell is called “Narak”, a place of 23 different levels of torture. One such level consists of constant diarrhea. I’ve been to Mexico. I’ve had Montezuma’s Revenge, and it’s not all that horrible. But have you ever had to do a number three and there was no toilet in sight? That. Is. Living. Hell. And if that’s what Narak consists of, I’m truly frightened and I’ll be a good boy to avoid it.
I don’t believe that afterlife hell exists. If you do believe in it, I hope you’ve grown out of it. In other words, I hope that hell doesn’t have a hold on you because this is literally the control system of immature children, or disobedient dogs. It’s the most base form of human motivation: fear. And as long as we fear death, and what (doesn’t) come after it, we’ll never be able to enjoy life, nor will we ever be able to have a good relationship with death.
Some of this content comes from my book, “Confessions of a Funeral Director.” Click the picture below to read more:
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