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Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Mortsafe

The moon slowly rises over a dark grove of pine trees.  Icy wind lashes the snow covered earth, across the skeletal arms of dead weeds and brush.

The Great Hand of the Sky splashed plumes of grey clouds winged with the luminescence of moonlight across a canopy of boundless azure sky. 

From the outside looking into the candlelit room, a family gathers solemnly around a weak and fragile young maiden who lies dying in her the great mahogany bed.  Her fever has piqued, leaving soaked sheets of white cotton, beneath an intricately embroidered silk coverlet. Logs snap and crackle in the hearth.  A somber Priest is at the foot of the bed, administering Last Rites, as Mother deeply weeps into a handkerchief.  

The young woman's heart slowly begins to wane into a faint beat and inevitably stops as she succumbs to death. 

At the moment of death, clocks will be stopped clocks to mark the moment, and mirrors are veiled in black lace or fabric, to prevent the dead's spirit from being trapped in its reflective glass. 

A wreath tied with black ribbon is hung on the outside of the front door of the home, so the public may know that a death has occurred. The wake had begun. 

This was a typical scene from the 1700's; 1800's and even into the early 1900's.  

The word wake is quite literal, when it comes the pre-Victorian, and Victorian time of death, as the body was watched over, with someone in constant attendance until the burial of the body.  During this time, the body was displayed usually in a parlor or a room of the deceased home where it is easily accessible to the public so that those wishing to pay their respects, could do so, easily.  This was also to allow time for relatives and friends to travel.  

Loved ones would sit with the body in shifts around the clock, so that the body was never left alone. The reason for this was to prevent premature burial, to ensure that the person was indeed dead, and not in a coma, as the fear of being buried alive was very much a real and intense fear. The technical term for this fear is called taphophobia. 

Before embalming became common practice, a body could begin to decay and obviously the odor was unpleasant.  

Flowers and candles were abundantly displayed to help mask the smell of a rotting corpse. 

Though the fear of being buried alive may seem far fetched, or from something of a horror flick, taphophobia is not without it's reality. -Denise Goodwin 

"Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me
The Carriage held but just Ourselves
And Immortality" ~Emily Dickinson

"In 1905, the English reformer William Tebb collected accounts of premature burial. He found 219 cases of near live burial, 149 actual live burials, 10 cases of live dissection and 2 cases of awakening while being embalmed." -wiki

  • "The Victorian novelist and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton asked for his heart to be punctured before he was buried, to make sure he was truly dead. 
  • The Danish author and poet Hans Christian Andersen was so frightened of premature burial that he often slept with a sign on him that read: "I am not really dead." 
  • George Washington requested that his body be watched for two days after his apparent demise. 
  • When the Duke of Wellington died in 1858, the three days Washington demanded wasn't nearly enough to satisfy the Victorians fear of premature burial. The Duke was left above ground for a full two months, just to be sure. 
  • Just before he died, Frederic Chopin supposedly wrote a note saying: “The earth is suffocating. Swear to make them cut me open, so I won’t be buried alive.” -atlasobscura.com

Arising from this hysteria was the concept of people becoming a Vampire after death. I imagine that this was most likely born from the morbid fear of being buried alive; and certainly heightened with the publication  of Bram Stoker's Dracula, later in the century. 

There is false information buzzing around the Internet which indicates that cages were devised to prevent the undead or vampires from escaping the grave, should they come back to life to suck the blood - and life - from humans.

The actual reason why these cages were constructed and erected over graves was because there was a demand for cadavers by medical schools, for the purpose of dissection by students.  Apparently eager to study anatomy.  Apparently text books didn't cut the proverbial mustard, and fresh bodies were the preferred method of learning.

Below:  Surviving examples of caged graves, known as the Mortsafe:

"Mortsafes were contraptions designed to protect graves from disturbance. The mortsafe was invented in about 1816. These were iron or iron-and-stone devices of great weight, in many different designs. Often they were complex heavy iron contraptions of rods and plates, padlocked together - examples have been found close to all Scottish medical schools. 

A plate was placed over the coffin and rods with heads were pushed through holes in it. These rods were kept in place by locking a second plate over the first to form extremely heavy protection. It would be removed by two people with keys. They were placed over the coffins for about six weeks, then removed for further use when the body inside was sufficiently decayed. 

"Resurrectionists" (the name used to describe the student grave-robbers) had supplied the schools of anatomy in Scotland since the early 18th century. This was due to the necessity for medical students to learn anatomy by attending dissections of human subjects, which was frustrated by the very limited allowance of dead bodies - for example the corpses of executed criminals - granted by the government, which controlled the supply.

The authorities turned a blind eye to the grave-rifling because surgeons and students were working to advance medical knowledge. They kept publicity to a minimum to prevent people from realizing what was happening. The cases of grave-robbing that came to light caused riots, damage to property and even fatal attacks. 

In the early 19th century, with the great increase in numbers of schools and students, there was continual rifling of lonely graveyards, fights in city burial grounds and other disturbances. Men were employed to steal bodies and transport them from place to place, even across the sea, for sale to medical schools. Revelations led to public outrage, particularly in Scotland, where there was great reverence for the dead.


Many people were determined to protect the graves of newly deceased friends and relatives. The rich could afford heavy table tombstones, vaults, mausolea and iron cages around graves. The poor began to place flowers and pebbles on graves to detect disturbances. They dug heather and branches into the soil to make disinterment more difficult. Large stones, often coffin-shaped, sometimes the gift of a wealthy man to the parish, were placed over new graves. 

Friends and relatives took turns or hired men to watch graves through the hours of darkness. Watch-houses were sometimes erected to shelter the watchers. One watch-house in Edinburgh is a three-story castellated building with windows. Watching societies were often formed in towns, one in Glasgow having 2,000 members. Many Kirk session houses were used by watchers. But graves were still violated.

Publicity surrounding the crimes of Burke and Hare heightened the fear felt by many people. It was about this time that vaults - repositories for dead bodies - were built by public subscription in Scotland, with their use governed by rules and regulations. Some of these were above ground while others - mainly in Aberdeenshire - were wholly or partly underground. In one village, Udny Green, in Aberdeenshire there is a unique morthouse, a circular building with a thick studded wooden door and an inner iron door. Inside there is turntable to accommodate seven coffins. A coffin would be moved round as further ones were added and by the time it reappeared the body would be of no use to the dissectionists.


Probably all communities near the Scottish schools of medicine in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen employed some means of protecting the dead. Some used both mortsafes and watching. There are watch-houses in the remoter Scottish areas, in the Borders, and two have been found in the English county of Northumberland. There is no evidence of their use in other parts of the United Kingdom.

"The gun,  dates to 1710, is mounted on a mechanism that allows it to spin freely. Cemetery keepers set up the flintlock weapon at the foot of a grave, with three tripwires strung in an arc around its position. A prospective grave-robber, stumbling over the tripwire in the dark, would trigger the weapon—much to his own misfortune". -Tumbler

A coffin collar was used to prevent grave robbers from stealing corpses. It was fixed round the neck of a corpse and bolted to the bottom of a coffin. This picture shows the back of a collar from Kingskettle in Fife. The collar dates from around 1820.  The iron collar is fixed to a piece of wood.   -National Museum of Scotland

Above, patented designs to prevent grave robbing.