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Hey, Matt:

So over the holidays, I'm back East sitting with my folks and my sister's family (all dr's and rn's) and the topic of graveyard shift comes up. They all say that this term comes from a few hundred(?) years ago when someone sat in a graveyard waiting to hear the tinkling of small bells that were put into motion by the recently buried. The deceased had a string tied to their finger and if they should waken they moved their finger, which activated the string connected through six feet of earth to a bell topside. This was done because a graveyard had been moved and marks inside some of the coffins exhibited post-burial activity. I blew them off. No way this can be true. How could they possibly bury someone who may still be alive?

-- Brad (bury me with a sawzall), the net

Post-egg nog conversation, I can tell. If you'd had just another cup or two, Brad, you'd have bought the whole story, and we wouldn't have to deal with it now. We voted you the relative least likely to be invited back next year. But that's not what you came to us for. So we sent the elves out for some Southern Comfort and Mountain Dew, and after a slug or two, here's what we say. Your family of wacky practitioners has stitched up a body of common knowledge that includes bits of fact, urban legend, and seductive nonsense. The patient's critical, but the prognosis is good.

It's ironic that the term "Rest in Peace" should be associated with graveyards. Victorians burial grounds were really jumping. They became grand gardens of contemplation, appropriate for Sunday strolls, carriage rides, and picnics. At night body snatchers dug up the customers as fast as they were put in the ground, then sold the exhumed to medical schools. Families tried to outdo each other with statuary and mausoleums. Mortuaries hawked caskets with the latest doodads guaranteed to keep the deceased in the ground and happy. In the latter decades of the 1800s, the subjects of death, dying, mourning, sentimentality, romanticism, and memorials were hot, hot, hot.

Historians believe all this death frenzy and the popularity of authors like Edgar Allen Poe stirred up peoples' natural fears of being buried alive. And to be honest, given the state of medical science and the frequent epidemics, it was at least a possibility. One infamous chap in Scotland had the job of boxing up cholera victims and shipping them off for burial. It was said he regularly ignored clear indications from the coffin that the person might not be quite as dead as everyone had thought. Fear of these illnesses made ordinary people do some very scary things. Physicians began to ask, "What exactly are the medical indications of death?" Entrepreneurs began to ask, "How can we make a buck from this?" A few entrepreneurs came up with the idea of selling us coffins with flag or bell or voice communication systems linked to the outside so you could exhume Aunt Sarah if it turned out she'd simply fallen into a very deep swoon.

So there's the true part of your family's ramblings. These coffins did exist. The story about the scratches on the lids, well, that's mostly Poe, but not impossible. The bunk element is that the people who sat around the cemetery waiting for Aunt Sarah to ring the bell were working the graveyard shift. That term evolved later, early in the 20th Century, referring to people who worked the gloomy hours between 11 at night and 7 in the morning, when the workplace was as quiet as a graveyard. Well, not a Victorian graveyard.

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