The Travelling Gazelle

Dead or alive?

During my trip to Edinburgh in 2017, I got to hear a lot of stories about life in the city in the old times. Unfortunately I didn’t think of writing them down at the time and forgot most of the details, except for this one which I really like and remember well enough to share with you.

Back in the days, life in Edinburgh was not always easy. You could meet your untimely demise for various reasons including petty theft. In a time where stealing a loaf of bread was punished by death, the supply of dead bodies was endless, which made Edinburgh a great place to study medicine. This “happy” situation lasted for a while but all good things come to an end and after a few years the authority started to realize that killing someone for stealing a loaf of bread was probably too harsh of a punishment so they amended that law.

This decision turned out to be a great thing for some but not so much for others. Where do the Universities were going to get their bodies now that people where no longer being hanged left, right and center? Although people were not being hanged as much, people were still dying. So a few “ingenious” minds decided to start robbing the graves and sell the bodies to the universities. That is how grave digging became somewhat of a trend. Various ways were thought of to protect the bodies until they were decomposed enough to not be worth anything anymore.

For one lady though, having her grave dug up turned out to be quite an interesting experience.The lady, whose name I don’t remember, drops dead one day during this dead bodies scarce period. She was fairly wealthy and used to wear a couple of nice rings. Because she was suffering from arthritis her fingers were a little deformed and people could not remove her rings for her burial. Therefore she was buried with her rings.

Soon after the burial a couple of grave diggers come to get her out. One of them sees the rings and decides that were she is going she will not need them so he proceeds to take them off. Because of her fingers situation just sliding them off doesn’t work and he decides to just cut her fingers off. I wonder which one was the most surprised when she woke up… turns out she hadn’t died after all.

This story actually helped come up with a better way of figuring out whether or not people were actually dead. When some of the graves in Edinburgh were dug up for the construction on the newest part of the city, a lot of coffins were sporting finger mark on the inside. It appears that a lot of people were buried alive in the earlier days because of a wrong diagnosis of death. I love this story, although I am glad medicine came a long way since then.

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