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JAMA 100 Years Ago
February 17, 1999


Author Affiliations

JenniferReiling, Editorial Assistant

JAMA. 1999;281(7):592R. doi:10.1001/jama.281.7.592

Among the bills introduced before the New York State Legislature is one that deals with the matter of premature burials, concerning which the public are unduly alarmed. . . . The projector of the bill says, unequivocally, that its object is "to preclude all danger of burying a live person. We have a number of authenticated cases of this," he continues, "and had such an act as we propose been in existence, they would not have occurred." . . . "The mortuary is to be constructed of stone, brick, or metal throughout . . . with a door at least six and one-half feet high and four feet wide. Over the door there is to be a transom kept open at all hours. The doors must be kept unlocked at all times, and permission to inspect the body deposited shall be given at all hours of the day . . . provided that the officers may refuse to permit more than fifteen persons in one day to inspect the body." . . . The bill also requires that no body shall be buried, cremated, or otherwise disposed of in any of the cemeteries, crematories, or other places for the final disposal of the dead before twelve hours shall have elapsed from the time of death, as stated in the certificate of the attending physician or coroner, and before unequivocal signs of decomposition shall have appeared. . . . The most commendable feature of the bill in question is the nonexposure of a body in the case of epidemic diseases. "But," says the New York Commercial Advertiser, "it does not appear to be necessary to fix an absolute time during which any body should remain unburied. A very much shorter period than seventy-two hours would suffice even in so-called doubtful cases for rigor mortis to declare itself. . . . After this nothing can be gained by waiting, watching or testing." The airing of this question by the public press of the Empire State has accentuated the fact that a German law is the model of the proposed enactment, and that there exists the London "Society for the Prevention of Premature Burial." Yet again in March last, in a pretentious hotel in New York City, there was held over the subject a symposium of lawyers, doctors, coroners and undertakers, none of whom suggested an autopsy as a final settlement. Such a recourse would certainly have been more effectual than an adjournment in confusion.

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