It all happened suddenly about 4.00 a.m. of Wednesday, 14 March 1859. I tried to stretch my limbs, lift my arm, move my legs; nothing happened. I tried to call my mother but my mouth produced no sound. My eyes were fixed in a permanent position. Strange enough however, I could hear everything – the clock ticking, the dogs barking, my brother snoring in the adjacent room ………. everything. I had nothing to do except wait patiently. Those were desperate hours.
Then the real story began. It was 7.00 a.m. when my mother came to wake me up for work. She shouted in my ears. I heard her and saw her beside me but I could not answer back. I could not move, smile or show any sign of communication.
My mother, driven mad, rushed downstairs repeating to my father and brother that I was dead. I saw them near me with tears on their cheeks and a desperate look in their eyes. They were shocked and crying. Even my father, my brother and my sister seemed to confirm my mother’s fallacious belief. I had to admit myself that I was dead or, better still, would soon be dead.
The doctor was called for and, on entering the house, told them that they had spoilt his sleep. He then pompously entered my room. I could see his bald head bending on my chest. He was tickling me with his long, untrimmed moustache. And he smelled! I had to endure all this for some time. Then the long experienced doctor straightened up and concluded that I was dead. Dead!! How could I convince them that I was alive?
The situation was now becoming desperate. My mother kissed my cold forehead and cried her heart out. Of course my forehead was cold, it was March and the windows were open so that the room would not smell the damned smell of the dead. That morning, in fact, was an exceptionally cold one and I was freezing.
A warm tear fell on my face. My parents, uttering hysterical lamentations, started clearing the room, otherwise visitors would not have enough room to crowd around me. All fancy ornaments were removed. My photo, lying on my bedside table, found itself in my mother’s embrace.
Four large candles were fetched, lit up and positioned around me in the centre of the room. People – relatives, friends and neighbours – were ceremoniously admitted in my presence to pay their last respects. A boy was sent hurriedly to get the coffin maker.
Old women came en masse, like they traditionally do on these occasions. There were also many children as I could hear their elders ordering them to be quiet. It is said that the left foot of the statue of St. Peter at the Vatican is being worn off by the kissing process of visitors. On the contrary, my forehead was accumulating a thickness of dirt from the stinking lips of shabbily dressed old women and smeared-faced little urchins.
Those kisses were neither remonstrations of love nor signs of pity. Those visitors were faithfully conforming to the tradition and custom of the time. No doubt the little sillies, seeing the grown-ups doing this ceremony, copied it jovially. I had to forego all this with astonishing resignation and unnoticed annoyance. I had no option.
I heard lots of stories from my friends that day wherein I was made the hero, featuring in some bravado, stories created at that same moment to alienate the sadness and depression of my relatives. Among the constant crying, an occasional laugh broke the gloomy atmosphere of the room.
Old timers opened their big mouths, showing decaying teeth, meaning to show consent and approval. Some of the dirty little scoundrels helped themselves and were carrying little souvenirs with them before leaving – books, pencils and other things which come useful when they return to school.
The party was going on nicely and smoothly. Unfortunately I was not enjoying it at all. I stood there helpless, an image for respect and comment. It was here that I learnt that my nose was slightly twisted and my mouth was a little too big for my face. They also said that I retained, even in death, a natural smile. Some said that I was smiling at the angels. The truth was that I was tearing myself apart seeing these parasites around my corpse. For me these were no angels, but demons from the depths of hell, come to disturb my peace.
My father was persuaded to rest in another room. The shock was too much for him, poor old man, not much in good health. How I wished that I could move and talk! Then the situation would be corrected immediately and all this farce would come to an end. I would have thrown out all those nosey pokers who came just to satisfy their curiosity, rather than to genuinely console those I was leaving behind.
Piercing cries of grief, despair and lamentation greeted the coffin-maker. He was so unlike the others around me. He looked all over me in a business-like manner. He carried on his work of measuring my length in an unconcerned way and his behavior was most unmannerly. He laughed between his teeth as if he was glad that I was dead and he was earning his commission. All it meant for him was pure business and nothing else.
As noon tolled its usual Angelus, I saw with great relief, most of the intruders rise and leave the room, of course after going through the act of telling my mother “We are awfully sorry, may God grant you patience and long life!!”
Guests and visitors being gone, silence reigned supreme in my room save for the rhythmic sobbing of close relatives. No food was served on that day, except for cups of tea and biscuits. Everyone at home kept themselves occupied in weeping and other remonstrations of affliction.
While all this was being enacted around me, I kept guessing how it would finish. I tried to convince myself that my paralysis would be over before they would bury me. I hoped it would, with all my heart I hoped it would!
But my wish was not granted. At about 4.00 p.m., twelve hours exactly after my death hour established by the doctor, the coffin-maker returned accompanied by four coffin–bearers. How I wish that I could describe those faces! Four rough brawny men, two of whom had scars on their faces. Their looks were terrifying and their language, when not in front of my relatives, was most foul. These were the four cut-throats who were hired to accompany me to my everlasting peaceful place.
Then there were mother, father brother and sister who, at the sight of these rough bearers, burst out shouting and weeping and begging that I be left another twelve hours in their company. I heard cries – that melancholic rhythm of the weeping which came from every corner of the house. I heard steps –coming and going, in and out of the room. And I saw the ghastly light of the four candles playing a funeral air with the in-coming breeze.
The thing that I had dreaded most had now arrived. I was lowered gently in the coffin under the agonizing look of my relatives. “No!” I wanted to shout, “Wait, I should be left another twelve hours here. This is required by law. Mother and father why did you give in to the blubbering of these four ruffians who are always eager to have the ceremony through as early as possible? Why the hurry? Why? Please leave me be ………..” These were my thoughts. I could not speak. My thoughts, as are those of everyone else’s, were inaudible.
The facts are now known. Although my parents had raised many an excuse to leave me with them for some more time, the coffin–bearers had persuaded them to bury me as early as possible in order to conform to the health laws. They argued that the stipulated twenty four hours expired on Sunday at the Ave Maria. Therefore I was either to be left here until Monday morning, which was not permissible by law or, as was proposed, I be transferred to the Mortuary room at the cemetery that same day.
This was considered to be the most plausible argument and was therefore agreed to by all. So my best friends came with wreaths and flowers, stinking ones some of them were, and seated themselves beside me. They all had loved me once. They all had liked my company when I was with them. Now, they were on tenderhooks to see the ceremony over. They wanted to have me buried at the earliest and go back to their wives and girlfriends. They had other appointments after this one. “Life goes on”, it had always been said.
“Make way, let this family alone!” shouted a hoarse voice. It was the undertaker who came to screw the lid of the coffin. Prayers were administered and last kissing ceremonies being over, I was remorselessly shut down and secluded from the outside world.
How can I describe what I felt while I was there? I knew that all hopes of getting out were now futile. A few more hours and the farce would have a tragic ending. Amid the cries and hysterical weeping, I felt that I was being lifted and moved. I was on my way to eternal sleep. This time it looked more real.
They were going down the first flight of steps carrying me with them. This was the end. I wanted to shout at them and tell them – “Easy, you damned fools. This is no common load that you are carrying. Be careful and make it smooth!” But, of course, they could not hear my thoughts.
“Put him down gently”, commanded the familiar hoarse voice. “Let me see him for the last time”, my mother frenzied. I heard the bolt being unscrewed and once more I could behold those stricken faces. Mother, father, brother and sister showered a rain of kisses over my face. I did not mind. I was enjoying some fresh air. I needed it badly. “That is enough”, cut short the undertaker who was more than eager to go through with this ceremony without more loss of time.
The lid closed. I felt myself being lowered down. I dimly heard the sound of cries, sobs, dust falling on the top of the coffin, stone slabs being put on the grave. Then silence, darkness, solitude, despair …………. I knew that there was nothing that I could do except wait patiently for the end to come.
The noise had long died away; the birds were long resting in the trees; the cemetery gates were certainly closed shut. Most people must be sleeping peacefully in their homes and I was dying like a rat. My friends might be enjoying themselves at a restaurant or the theatre, their long time friend forgotten. My parents, brother and sister however must be hurt at losing me and must be surely in despair.
I prayed and wept but no tears showed on my face. I implored all the saints in heaven to help me, to get me out of there and restore me to my family. This was no way to end one’s life. I tried to shout but did not succeed. Where was my voice? I tried to move but I could not. I waited and prayed, wept and despaired, hoped and prayed again. Seconds passed by, minutes followed slowly and then an hour. The cemetery bell chimed the eleventh hour.
Then it happened all of a sudden. I heard my own breath, though very feeble. I shouted and this time the coffin resounded with the sound of my voice. My voice! My voice! I was recovering. It was a mixture of joy, hope, but also desperation. Then my limbs moved. I tried my arms, my legs. They responded. It appeared that I was recovering from my paralysis.
I turned my back against the lid of the coffin and pushed with all my strength. It gave way and I breathed the contaminated air of the occupied grave. I forced my way out of the coffin and sat for a minute contemplating my next move. Beneath the coffin were two other coffins and the smell was intolerable. I touched the ceiling. It was not high. I put my head against one of the slabs and lifted. It was freshly sealed and gave way easily. Up it went. I pushed with all my strength. Then got out and heaved a sigh of relief.
As I pulled myself out of that dreadful place, I rushed into the open air and sat breathless on the tombstone inhaling the fresh breeze. Darkness filled the area around me. Near me were all sorts of marble monuments while in the distance I saw the silhouette of the chapel and tall birch trees. Further away was the town from where some lights flickered in the darkness of the night.
My residence was some three miles away. I looked at myself and discovered that I was wearing an old black suit, socks but no shoes. The cemetery clock tolled 1.00 in the morning. As quick as I could I jumped over the wall which, fortunately, was not very high. In haste I made my way home. I knew that it was not going to be easy to present myself to my family when they were so sure that I was dead and buried. But they had to face it.
It was past 2.00 in the early morning when I reached my town. Slowly and noiselessly, I made my way home. My parent’s room showed some light. I was certain that they would not be sleeping that night. I knocked and my mother came down to answer. “Who is there? she sobbed. Without thinking twice, I told her “It is me, your son Joe!” She recognized my voice; opened the door and, on seeing me, fainted in my arms. My father, brother and sister were awakened. They were bewildered when they saw me. How could I explain that I was no ghost? They stood there before me, amazed, and would not touch me.
Some minutes later, after explaining the situation, I was holding my family members to my chest. When things calmed down my father said “Let us sit down”. Then he gave me a tot of whisky in a glass. I gulped it down and related to them the whole story. They were so happy to have me back with them after that ordeal. It was 4 in the morning when we went to bed. I knew that now it was all over.
Next morning I did not wake up for work. When I appeared in the streets I had a difficult task explaining how it happened. Everybody was asking about the doctor who had certified my death! “Well, he must have been in a hurry!” I responded with sarcasm. “But let us forget this terrible experience now and go celebrate my return to real life”.
“But how can it be that you were buried before the expiration of the stipulated twenty four hours?” they asked. “It was all the doing of the undertakers, they would not come on Sunday, so they wanted to finish the job on Saturday”, I replied. “How does it feel to be down there?” was another eager question. “Well, I felt like all dead ones do, except that while I wished and struggled to return here, on the contrary, real dead ones do not”, I laughed in their face.
This was indeed a strange experience, but at least I learned my position in connection with those I had to live with – my family, my friends, my neighbours. I will certainly be better disposed next time I have to cross to the other side.
Today, thanks to the progress of medicine and to more stringent health laws, such things will not repeat themselves. In those days, however, such happenings were not a rare occurrence.