Cemetery traditions of the nineteenth century include multiple tales of individuals, inadvertently, being buried alive. After all, prior to the invention of the stethoscope, there was no really accurate way of testing for a heartbeat. Best practices included holding a mirror to the mouth of the dead, to see if they were still breathing.
In order to reassure surviving family members that their kin would not be buried alive, coffin builders and morticians provided coffins with bells attached to the lid. A string would run into the coffin and tied to the finger of the dead. If the person stirred in the coffin, their hand would move and the bell would ring. In this way, the deceased could announce to the entire world, “I’m not dead yet!” And in this way save themselves from being buried alive.
Some historians suggest this fear of being buried alive was the original cause for the three day wake. Family members were expected to stay with the body for three days, giving close attention to witness any stirring or movement that might suggest there was still life in the corpse. This fear of being buried alive might also explain why early wakes were in the home. If someone were still living, they would find themselves lying near their own bed, in the comfort of their own home
Many cemeteries throughout the country built “bell rooms” for family members to continue the wake process.
A well known tale from Atlanta about this fear concerns the death of Dr. James Nissen, a physician visiting Atlanta at the time of his death. Nissen spoke to his good friend Dr. Noel D’Alvigny about his fears. He also extracted a promise from his friend that before he was covered in the ground, Dr. D’Alvigny would slice his jugular vein to insure Dr. Nissen was dead. As best as I can determine, the wish was carried out.
So, you see, the caring for the dead is a very tradition-rich process. Not only does it carry a number of associations with Judeo-Christian ethic, but there are many practical applications for the actions connected with preparing someone for burial. Perhaps, most important is the opportunity to announce: “I’m not Dead Yet!”