Happy Halloween! Bells have a sinister side, too, you know. As my colleague Tiffany Ng has argued in her doctoral dissertation, in cultural representations bells have been associated with utopias and dystopias—death, decay, and all the rest of it.
And we don’t even have to look at cultural representations—we can just look at the macabre security coffin from Europe.*
Fear of being buried alive has been common since time immemorial. By the 19th century, western science still hadn’t quite honed in on the notion that death was confirmed by a stopped heartbeat, and anecdotes abounded of the dead coming back to life days after their supposed death. What to do? One gross solution was to store bodies in a Leichenhäuser, a waiting mortuary, for a time until they had decomposed enough to ensure that they were really, truly dead. That place must have stunk to high heaven for a mile around. Another solution was to rig up your coffin to a bell above ground, so that the bell would ring should the poor person awake while in the grave. Yes, you read that right—bells to alarm those above ground that the buried is still alive.
There were different mechanisms to ring the bell. Some required intelligent motion, by pulling on a string, for example. Others were activated by the mere slightest movement of the chest and arms, should the person not have the strength to even pull a string.
Bells in this case signaled life—actually, resurrection! Bells toll to mark the death of a Christian, and here bells have the duty to announce the person’s earthly life again. These patented coffins never made deep inroads in the funeral market, but that’s probably for the best. It turns out that the bloating of a decomposing body would have been enough to trigger the bell in the security coffin detecting slight movements in the chest and arms. Just imagine hearing a bell at a graveyard, frantically digging down to the coffin to release the desperate person inside, perhaps with the family nearby…only to find a putrefied body. Gruesome, to say the least. Hearing the bell at the graveside, after a few incidents like this, one wouldn’t be sure if it signaled death or life.
* Information on security coffins taken from Bondeson, Jan. Buried Alive: the Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.