Buried alive! An urban legend?
Imagine someone you love. Someone you care for dearly. This might be your mother or father; or a brother or sister. If you are fortunate enough, this may be your lover. Now imagine that person is dead; the anguish of losing them; the disbelief that they can be gone – forever; the anger that they can be taken away from you; imagine bargaining to bring them back. What if you could bring them back? What if you have the right to be angry that someone has taken them away from you? What if the disbelief that they cannot be dead is warranted? What if they were buried alive?!
There are urban legends, folk stories in which lovers are torn apart by death. One being presumed dead is buried, while the other dreams of their buried love crying out to them from beyond the grave. Unable to accept that their true love is dead, that these are merely dreams of a broken heart, the lover races to the cemetery and frantically digs to find that their dreams were true. Their lover’s nails have been torn back into bloody stumps as they have tried clawing their way through the coffin lid; their body contorted as they have fought to break free from their final resting place as they gasps their last breathes of air.
The condition I speak of is not just an urban legend, but a rare phenomenon referred to as ‘Lazarus syndrome’. The name is taken from the New Testament, as the man who Jesus raised from the dead. There are many secondary reports of persons coming back to life after being announced dead, or bodies being exhumed to reveal a corpse described above. Surprisingly, or perhaps not so, the medical literature is somewhat lacking in the description and analyses of this phenomenon. As authors of an anaesthetist journal remarked, this may be due to the ethical and/or legal ramifications feared by the medical practitioners. Another paper also suggests the phenomenon as being under-reported for fear of being criticised or lack of evidence to support the actual events.
In medical terms, Lazarus syndrome is referred to as ‘Spontaneous Return of Circulation’. The pathological causes of the condition are varied and far reaching. This can be from ‘ventricular fibrillation’ where the heart beats erratically, or from the pressure inside a chest blocking blood flow. Regardless, if you have a loved one recently pronounced dead, be sure to get the doctors to check and double check (for at least ten minutes after being pronounced) that they are in fact dead!
In the past, the concern for many was being buried alive. Many wrote into their wills conditions to ensure that they were dead before being buried, or being buried with elaborate coffins which triggered alarms if they were in fact alive. Today, the issue is best illustrated in the words of Edgar Alan Poe:
The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where one the ends, and the other begins? (The Premature Burial, 1850).
There is no guideline around pronouncing someone dead, or for how long to keep trying to resuscitate them. With the advances of organ donation, a family needs to ask themselves when is the right time to let go. But then, we can’t hang on forever, can we?
Ben-David, B, Stonebraker, VC, Hershman, R, Frost, CL, Williams, H, Kenneth M, (2000) ‘Survival After Failed Intraoperative Resuscitation: A Case of “Lazarus Syndrome”’ Anesthesia and Analgesia 92(3): 690-692
Hall, FM, (2012) ‘The Lazarus Syndrome and the Ethics of Evidence-based versus Experience-based Medicine’, Radiology: 265(3): 976
Wiese, CHR, Bartels, UE, Orso, S, and Graf, BM (2010) ‘Lazarus-Phänomen: Spontane Kreislauffunktion nach beendeten Reanimationsmaßnahmen‘ Anaesthesist 59:333–34, DOI 10.1007/s00101-010-1709-7 Online publiziert: 13. März 2010