The line between life and death suddenly seemed unclear in the 18th and 19th centuries. New scientific knowledge, like the use of electricity to manipulate life and smelling salts to revive unconscious people, seemed to promise that the dead might not actually be dead. Hence the development of 18th-century methods to test for death, which range from the gruesome, like chopping off a finger, to the bizarre, like cranking someone’s tongue for three hours. In the era of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it seemed possible to bring the dead back to life – so it was extra important to make sure someone was really dead before putting them in the ground.
The criteria for death was changing around 1800, as the medical definition of death and ways of testing death evolved. Artificial respiration promised the revival of seemingly dead people, but this raised a troubling question about how to confirm death medically. One test, the tobacco smoke enema, was incredibly risky for the victim and the medic, while others required tossing boiling water on corpses or slicing their feet with razors to test whether they were really deceased.
Families wanted to make sure their loved ones were actually dead before they were buried. Maybe that’s one reason Victorian mourners sat with dead bodies for days before burial. The fear of being buried alive was allayed by safety coffins and waiting mortuaries. And while morticians promise that these horrifying death tests aren’t used any more, death is always a gruesome process.