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Premature Death Declarations Can Kill

By John Salak

Premature Death Declarations Can Kill

By John Salak –

What is the worst fear a person can have? Being buried alive or prematurely identified as dead has to be near the top of the list. Okay, the thought is creepy and disturbing. But unless a person is the target of a gruesome murder attempt, most people can take heart in realizing there is really little to worry about being misdeclared dead today given the advent of modern medicine. Think again. 

While admittedly not a common occurrence, there were two incidents early in 2023 where two elderly women, one in Iowa and another in New York, were declared dead only to have funeral homes discover these individuals were still alive when they arrived at their facilities. 

To make matters worse, if that’s possible, the 66-year-old woman from Iowa was discovered in a body bag grasping for air. This disturbing and frightening mix-up—to put it mildly—isn’t limited to the elderly.

A few years ago, a 20-year-old Michigan woman was declared dead only to have personnel at a funeral home discover she was very much alive as she was about to be prepped for embalming.  

“You could tell she was breathing,” a spokeswoman for the funeral home told the local media at the time. “You could see a chest going up and down.”

Ancient Fears

These tales of premature death declarations harken back to Edgar Allen Poe’s The Premature Burial and the all-too-common 18th and 19th-century fears that led people to design burial plots that allowed those accidentally buried to signal others walking around too, well, come dig them out. Heck, the fear of premature burial dates back to the Fifth Century when it was rumored that Roman Emperor Zeno had declared dead and entombed before he was ready. 

What’s the cause for misidentifying someone as dead who is not? It would vary, especially up to the first half of the 20th Century. Since then, medical science attributes most premature death cases to The Lazarus Syndrome. This phenomenon is defined as a “delayed return of spontaneous circulation (ROSC) after CPR has ceased. In other words, patients who are pronounced dead after cardiac arrest experience an impromptu return of cardiac activity,” according to Medical News Today.

Since the term was first coined in 1982, there have been 38 reported cases of the syndrome, which not surprisingly gets its name from Lazarus of Bethany, who the Bible claims Jesus brought back to life. In what may be a relief to many, one research project noted that over 80 percent of those individuals who came back to life, did so within 10 minutes of appearing to be dead. This precluded them from waking up in a morgue or funeral home.

This is also why patients should be passively monitored for at least 10 minutes after the cessation of CPR before confirming death, the study’s research team added. Others would undoubtedly suggest waiting even longer. 

Heck, an American icon, sage, founding father and revolutionary Benjamin Franklin would probably agree, even if the notion undermined one of his most famous quotes. In giving an update on the status of American democracy in 1789 to a friend in then revolutionary-vexed France, Franklin wrote: “Our new Constitution is now established, everything seems to promise it will be durable; but, in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” 

Apparently, now not even death is certain. 





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