Onyxfeld, Early winter – 1878
The cloying dark
The choking dirt
The air too thin to breathe.
When buried deep
Below the soil
There’ll be no swift relief…
There are perhaps few fears more exacting upon our sense of well-being than the notion of premature burial. Trapped inside a wooden coffin, barely wide enough to move your arms, drawing in thick, stifling air. Movement is almost impossible, and your screams for assistance are muted from the surface by four to six feet of dense, wet soil. Sounds like the stuff of nightmares? Well, exhumations throughout history have revealed these fears to be well-grounded (ha), with descriptions and agonizing examples aplenty of victims being buried alive. Corpses were found to have splintered or non-existent fingernails, lips chewed to shreds, and bloodied extremities as they fought, literally tooth and nail to get out, while family members continued their mourning, unaware of the frenzied plight of their loved ones just below the surface.
It’s worth noting that although we seem to have a fairly good idea of the difference between life and death (my clinic is a resounding beacon in that department) most doctors will freely admit that they can’t tell for sure when a patient has actually snuffed it. There are multiple methods of deciding if the dead are actually dead, ranging from poking them with pins , shouting at them, to shoving pokers up their derrières and placing insects in their ears. That said, potential ‘resurrection’ was no picnic either. A well respected monk by the name of Odran from Ireland was buried and then, for reasons unknown, unearthed and found to be alive. Unfortunately, Odran didn’t keep his mouth shut and claimed he had seen both heaven and hell, and was promptly reburied for heresy. That’s a mistake you don’t make twice.
In my studies, perhaps the most remarkable life story centered on accidental inhumation was that of François De Civille, a captain in the French army, and a gentleman who it might be considered (even for a Frenchman) to have the testicular fortitude of a rhinoceros. He was buried alive three times during his life, survived them all and continued to a ripe old age.
His burial #1 could be said to be more the stuff of fantasy than perhaps truth with only a couple of substantiating sources, but de Civille would reportedly never brook question of the events. Surviving a birth of a truly grotesque nature, Death’s grip slipped from him – and it wouldn’t be the last time. His mother had recently died whilst pregnant with his tiny body still within, the infant assumed to be dead also. As the father was not present for the funeral, he ordered her exhumed. As she was pregnant and he doubtful of the validity of her death, he ordered her to be cut open. Thus, François De Civille was born via caesarean section from his mothers dead and cooling body in 1537.
Burial #2 occurred during a more heroic episode. In the Seige of Rouen in 1562, fighting on the side of the Catholics in the bloody religious wars that tore France apart in the 16th century, Monsieur de Civille, now grown up and a captain-soldier, was ordered to the ramparts of the town to repulse an assault on the walls. No doubt drawing attention to himself by waving his sword around and yelling expletives (I was a surgeon in several incursions on French soil; I’ve seen how they fight – brave and flamboyant – they make good targets) he was summarily shot from the parapets. A ball from an arquebus had struck him in the hand, which then ricocheted into his cheek, tearing through the jawbone before ejecting. He plummeted from the wall into the moat and was assumed dead. Prior to retreating, the Protestants buried him in a very shallow grave – and yet he lived .
Were it not for his trusty servant la Barre, de Civille’s story might have ended there, but the faithful attendant searched high and low for the beleaguered soldier, and upon discovering him embraced the body with ‘tears and kisses’. Remarkably, he found his master to be still breathing.
Burial number 2 was not enough to do the poor man in it seems. Suffering from his grievous wounds, he was taken to a nearby town of Saint-Clar and nursed to a partial recovery by local physicians. He looked as though his troubles were over, and they would have been, were it not for the shoddy garrison who managed to let the town become overrun by the enemy.
Bursting into the house where he was recovering and finding his vulnerable body, soldiers chucked him unceremoniously out of the window in a fit of angry rage (assaulting and pillaging can be very stressful), believing the fall would kill him. This was about eleven days after his original wounding and subsequent descent from the ramparts of Rouen, and by now François knew a thing or two about falling from high places. He landed, somewhat fortuitously, in a conveniently located dung heap. Not wishing to be a further bother to the soldiers, he remained there out of sight for three days, wounded, but undeterred, buried in excrement produced by goodness knows what whilst pulling the pungent material around him for warmth. Never would an insult of ‘eat shit and die’ directed at de Civille, any time hence, be so apt, and yet so inaccurate. This was Burial #3, if you’ve been keeping up.
A cousin of the de Civille, believing his relative dead and seeking to give the man a decent burial, inquired after him and found him in the dung heap, very much alive, if incapacitated, hungry, cold and undoubtedly pissed off. He was secreted away from the conflict and was brought to full health. Our hero went on to continue fighting for many more years for both England and France, gaining the favor of the notoriously hard-to-please Queen Elizabeth I, and given lands and title for his efforts and military successes in Scotland. Additionally, he was probably never beaten in a pub story contest.
Surviving such horrors as war, erroneous inhumation and being shot several times, he perished at the hands of a severe cold at 73, caused by some midnight serenading of a woman he had fallen desperately in love with, and was finally buried, permanently this time, in 1610.
It seems fitting that François De Civille was laid low by disease at the hands of love, rather than the grim intentions of enemy soldiers or by suffocation in the ground. Throughout his life he was suitably proud of his incredible legacy, and felt he had the right (and who should disagree) to sign after his name the following:
“Thrice born, thrice buried, and thrice risen from the ground, by the grace of God.”
Rest in peace, Monsieur de Civille.
(Sources available on request)
Originally published on The Pandora Society, October 7th 2015