Here's Everything You (Never) Wanted To Know About Coffin Birth
Pregnancy can be pretty terrifying for expectant mothers. Even a normal, healthy pregnancy is accompanied by intense bodily changes and hormone shifts that can be extremely difficult to cope with. Yet none of that can come close to the horrors of what happens when women perish while pregnant. As it turns out, babies born in coffins is a thing and it's more terrifying than the bubonic plague.
The phenomenon is commonly known as coffin birth, and it's a completely natural occurrence. When a pregnant mother passes, sometimes her body will force the fetus out of the womb postmortem, "birthing" a deceased child. Coffin birth has been observed by some of the most unfortunate archaeologists in the world. It has been confirmed as a real phenomenon and is one of the more gruesome and depressing facts about the burial process.
Archaeologists Have Found Cases Of Coffin Birth In Excavated TombsPhoto: Riggwelter / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0
When excavating an ancient tomb, the last thing most archaeologists would expect to find is the skeleton of a fetus half-protruding from its mother. There have been several cases where archeologists discovered just that, but fortunately, those discoveries are helping us better understand this macabre phenomenon.
In 2017, scientists announced the discovery of a coffin birth that dated all way the back to the 1300s. The grave was found near the modern city of Genoa, Italy. A mother was buried alongside her children, including an infant that is believed to have been a coffin birth. The mother and her children were likely victims of the bubonic plague, as sampling of their DNA found trace amounts of the disease in their systems.
There Are Extensive Historical Records Documenting Coffin Births
If you go back a couple hundred years in medical records, you'll find quite a few accounts of documented coffin births. One 17th century text has the following quote about a woman found to have delivered after her life ended: "April ye 20, 1650, was buried Emme, the wife of Thomas Toplace, who was found delivered of a child after she had lain two hours in the grave."
Another report from the same century described a woman who had a baby "hanging between the thighs" three days after she perished. These are just a few of the numerous cases on record.
The Phenomenon Is Known In The Scientific Community As Postmortem Fetal Extrusion
While "coffin birth" certainly has more of a morbid ring to it, the term is a bit too grim for scientists to use. The official phrase to describe coffin birth is postmortem fetal extrusion (PFE) or expulsion, and the two terms can be used interchangeably.
The scientific phrasing is much more accurate than the term "coffin birth," as this phenomenon can happen to any deceased pregnant women, regardless of whether or not they are actually in a coffin.
PFE Isn't Just An Ancient PhenomenonPhoto: Stephencdickson / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0
While modern preservation techniques practically eliminate the chances of a coffin birth, not every corpse gets the treatment it needs. One report describes a pregnant woman who was found several weeks after she passed, and the description of PFE is considered one of the most graphic depictions.
The woman was bloated, green, and had a half-born fetus protruded from her body. Both the woman and fetus were confirmed to have passed when the mother did, and there were no signs of labor prior. The autopsy confirmed that the fetus had been forced by the gasses building up in the mother.
A Buildup Of Gasses During Putrefaction Is The Likely Cause Of Coffin BirthPhoto: DcoetzeeBot / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
The science behind PFE is as messy as the result, but researchers believe they've figured out why this happens. It has everything to do with putrefaction, which is what happens to your body after you expire. As your cells begin to decay, they start releasing large amounts of gasses as a waste product. The gasses can start to build up to the point that they need to find an escape route, which can often cause the body to burst.
This process could be the explanation for coffin birth, as the excess of gases can theoretically push the baby out as they look for a way to relieve the pressure.
The Fetuses Don't Always Make It All The Way Out
One of the grisly details about coffin birth is that it's rarely a full-on birth. Many of the fetuses are found only partially extruding from the mother's birth canal. Sometimes it's just the head, while other times the entire top half of the fetus is exposed.
Since it's not an actual birth and only caused by pressurized gasses, the whole fetus doesn't have to be released. There just has to be enough room to allow the gasses to escape the body cavity.