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11 People Who Turned Up Alive at Their Own Funeral

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by Simon Brew

Picture the scene: You’re at a funeral, or are in the process of arranging one, when the person who’s supposed to be in the coffin turns up to see what’s going on. Stuff of imagination? More often than not, yes. But sometimes, it really does happen.

1. THE MAN MISTAKENLY IDENTIFIED BY HIS BROTHER

Gilberto Araujo of Brazil was pronounced dead back in 2012, after his body had been identified at the local morgue by his brother. Family members of the 41-year-old were standing alongside his coffin in mourning when Araujo turned up at the door.

The untimely funeral was a case of mistaken identity: Araujo worked as a car washer in the town of Alagoinhas, Brazil, where there had been a murder. That murder took the life of another car-washer, who apparently looked like Araujo—hence his brother’s confusion. We can only imagine the two weren’t very close.

2. THE WOMAN WHO CONFRONTED THE HUSBAND WHO’D ORDERED HER DEAD

The story of Noela Rukundo made headlines around the world in 2016. A resident of Australia, she had returned home to Burundi to attend the funeral of her stepmother. Unbeknownst to her, her husband had arranged hitmen to take her life while she was there, and they duly grabbed her.

However, these were hitmen with a heart. When they realized her own husband had ordered her killed, they gave Rukundo her freedom and she flew home, approaching her husband at her own funeral to confront him about his plan. He was sentenced to nine years in prison at the end of 2015.

3. THE CHINESE MAN WHO STAGED HIS OWN FUNERAL

Zhang Deyang was 66 years old when he decided to stage his own funeral. He arranged it himself, wondering how many would turn up given that he had never married and had no children. There was a particular reason for his concern—in Chinese culture, the dead are said to have needs, and their graves are supposed to be visited regularly to ensure those needs are met.

In the event, 40 invitees turned up at Deyang’s funeral, along with several hundred others. Yet he wasn’t happy: 20 relatives and friends didn’t show up. “I can’t believe so many relatives and friends don’t care about me,” he was quoted as saying.

4. THE SERBIAN MAN WHO THANKED PEOPLE FOR ATTENDING HIS FUNERAL

There’s more than one example of someone who arranged their own funeral just to see who would turn up. In 1997, Serbian pensioner Vuk Peric posted a fake death notice in his local newspaper, and sent invites to his funeral. He then watched the event from a distance, eventually emerging to reveal that he was, indeed, alive. He thanked the mourners for attending.

5. THE MAN WHO GOT TWO MORE WEEKS.

Seventy-eight-year-old Walter Williams of Mississippi was pronounced dead on February 26, 2014. As CNN reported, the correct paperwork was completed, his body was put into a bodybag, and he was taken to a funeral home.

Yet Williams didn’t make it to his funeral, because when his body was taken to the embalming room, his legs began to move. Then, the coroner noticed him lightly breathing. Williams was alive.

It was, as it turned out, a short-lived reprieve. Just over two weeks later, he passed away for real. The family double-checked. “I think he’s gone this time,” confirmed his nephew.

6. THE REAWAKENING THAT INSPIRED A HOLIDAY

The village of Braughing in Hertfordshire, England, celebrates "Old Man’s Day" on October 2 each year. The tradition dates back to 1571, and the funeral of a local farmer by the name of Matthew Wall. On the way to his funeral, though, one of his pallbearers dropped his coffin.

It’s a good thing he did, because the jolt promptly woke up Wall up. The farmer would live for over two decades more, finally passing away in 1595. His coming back to life continues to be cause for celebration in Braughing.

7. THE BISHOP WHO WOKE UP AFTER TWO DAYS

Nicephorus Glycas was a bishop working in Lesbos, Greece, when he was declared dead on March 3, 1896. In accordance with tradition, his body was left on display in the Methymni church.

It was on the second night of what was known as "the exposition of the corpse" that things took a turn. For Glycas sat up, reportedly demanding to know what all the fuss was about. Turned out, he’d just been having a long nap.

8. THE MAN WHO TURNED UP DRUNK AT HIS OWN FUNERAL

When Ecuadorian man Edison Vicuna went missing for three days, his friends and family assumed the worst. Especially when the body turned up of a man whose face had been severely disfigured following a car accident. A post-mortem was performed, and the corpse was confirmed to be Vicuna’s.

Only it wasn’t. In fact, come his funeral, Vicuna turned up, drunk, causing mourners to scream in horror. The funeral, as you might expect, was halted, and the body was returned to the morgue, where it was properly identified as belonging to someone entirely different.

9. THE WOMAN WHO WOKE UP—THEN DIED FOR REAL

When Fagilyu Mukhametzyanov of Kazan in Russia collapsed at home following a heart attack in 2011, she was quickly rushed to her local hospital. But the journey was apparently in vain; she was soon declared dead.

This story that follows, though, has both good and bad sides to it.

The good part? She was alive. A few days later, as she was lying in her coffin at her own funeral, she woke up. She saw the mourners around her, crying and praying for her, and quickly twigged to what was happening. She reportedly—and understandably—began yelling, and was quickly rushed back to hospital.

However, the shock of what had happened took its toll. As her husband Fagili Mukhametzyanov recalled, “her eyes flapped. However, she just lived for an additional 12 minutes in intensive care prior to dying once more, this time permanently.” Heart failure was ultimately registered as the cause of death.

10. THE MAN WHO TURNED UP TO THE LAST DAY OF HIS FUNERAL

When a government airstrike killed over 100 people near Damascus, Syria last year, one of the casualties was seemingly Mohammed Rayhan. He had been at the local market, which took the force of the blast, and was apparently dead, buried under rubble.

That turned out to be only half-true.

Rayhan’s family and friends organized his funeral, which went ahead a few days later without the corpse. But said friends and family got a very pleasant shock when the man himself turned up at it. Rayhan had been buried under the rubble following the explosion for 36 hours, but eventually managed to free himself. When he arrived at his funeral, he was still covered in the remnants of the rubble in his hair and beard.

11. THE WAITER WHO RETURNED TO LIFE

Twenty-eight-year-old Hamdi Hafez al-Nubi worked as a waiter in Luxor, Egypt back in 2012. It was while he was working one day that he had a heart attack, and apparently perished. He was declared dead, and his family took the body home, washed it according to Islamic traditions, and readied it for his burial at the end of the week.

The fact that al-Nubi was actually alive was spotted by the doctor sent to sign the final death certificate. He took a closer look at the body when he noticed it was still warm, and discovered that al-Nubi was still breathing. He quickly alerted the man’s mother, and what was set to be his funeral turned into a celebration instead.

All photos via iStock.

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History
The Surprising Origin of the Word Morgue
Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Today the word morgue conjures up images of an efficient, hygienic room overseen by professionals in lab coats and rubber gloves. Most of us are familiar with its inner workings only from cop shows and crime novels, never having had the desire—or need—to visit one in real life. However, our image of the modern, sterile morgue stands in stark contrast with the room that originally gave rise to the term.

In 18th century Paris, visitors to the Grand Châtelet—a combined court, police headquarters, and prison that served as the seat of common-law jurisdiction in pre-revolutionary France—could descend to the basement basse-geôle and peer in through the grille of the door. There, they would catch a glimpse of a small room where unidentified dead bodies were displayed to the public, strewn across the bare floor. The room became informally known as la morgue, an early definition of which appears in the 1718 Dictionnaire de l’Académie: "A place at the Châtelet, where dead bodies that have been found are open to the public view, in order that they be recognized."

Print of the Grand Châtelet of Paris by Allain Manesson-Mallet,1702
Bibliothèque de l'INHA via Europeana // Public Domain

The name for this gruesome room likely had its roots in the Archaic French verb morguer, which means "to look solemnly." Historians think that such rooms had existed in Parisian prisons since the 14th century, initially as a place where newly incarcerated prisoners would be held until identified, but later to deal with the many dead bodies found on the streets or pulled from the River Seine. (In fact, there were so many bodies in the river—both murder victims and suicides—that a huge net was stretched across the river at St. Cloud to catch the bodies as they washed downstream, from which they were transported to the Grand Châtelet.) But it was not until around the turn of the 18th century that the public were invited in and asked to try and identify the dead at la morgue.

The stench emanating from the corpses at the morgue must have been unbearable, and the public exposure to the "bad humors" was one of the reasons for the creation of a new, more hygienic morgue, at the place du Marché-Neuf on the Ile-de-la-Cité in 1804. This new morgue building (by now officially known as La Morgue) was housed in a building styled like a Greek temple that was close to the river, enabling bodies to be transported there by boat. The corpses were now displayed in a purpose-built exhibit room, with plate-glass windows and plenty of natural light, allowing crowds to gather and gawk at the corpses laid out on marble slabs. Refrigeration did not come until the 1880s, so the bodies were kept cool with a constant drip of cold water, lending the cadavers a bloated appearance. The clothes of the deceased were hung from pegs next to the dead as a further aide to their identification.

Drawing of the Paris morgue circa 1845
Hippolyte Destailleur, Bibliothèque nationale de France // Public Domain

The central location of the morgue ensured a healthy traffic of people of all classes, becoming a place to see and be seen, and to catch up on the latest gossip. Its popularity as a place of spectacle grew as the 19th century progressed, stoked by being included as a must-see location in most guidebooks to Paris. On the days after a big crime had been committed, as many as 40,000 people flocked through its doors.

The morgue was also written about by luminaries such as Charles Dickens, who touched on it a number of times in his journalism, confessing in The Uncommercial Traveller (a series of sketches written between 1860-9) that it held a gruesome draw: "Whenever I am at Paris, I am dragged by invisible force into the Morgue. I never want to go there, but am always pulled there. One Christmas Day, when I would rather have been anywhere else, I was attracted in, to see an old grey man lying all alone on his cold bed, with a tap of water turned on over his grey hair, and running, drip, drip, drip, down his wretched face until it got to the corner of his mouth, where it took a turn, and made him look sly." Dickens also described the crowds of people flocking to the morgue to gawk at the latest arrivals, idly swapping speculation on causes of death and potential identities: "It was strange to see so much heat and uproar seething about one poor spare white-haired old man, so quiet for evermore."

In 1864, the morgue at the Marché-Neuf was demolished to make way for Baron Haussmann's sweeping re-modeling of Paris. The new morgue building was situated just behind Notre Dame, again in a busy public space, re-affirming its purpose as a place to view and identify dead bodies. However, it was also in this new building that the morgue moved away from pure spectacle and began to be linked with the medical identification of bodies, as well as advances in forensics and the professionalization of policing. The new morgue had an autopsy room, a small laboratory for chemical analysis, and rooms where police and administrators could inspect the bodies and record any murders or suicides. The emphasis shifted—the morgue was no longer purely dependent on the public to identify the bodies; it now had medical, administrative, and investigative officers doing that work, moving it closer to our modern idea of what a morgue is.

By the 1880s the fame of the Paris morgue, and admiration of its now-efficient administrative structures, had spread across the world. The word morgue began to be used to describe places where the dead were kept in both Britain and America, replacing the older "dead house" and becoming synonymous with mortuary. Over time, the word morgue was also adopted in American English, perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek, for rooms where newspaper or magazine archives are kept—for example, The New York Times morgue, a storehouse for historical clippings, photographs, and other reference materials related to the paper.

The Paris morgue closed its doors to the public in 1907. A combination of factors led to the decision: gradually changing public attitudes to the viewing of dead bodies, concerns over hygiene and the spread of disease, and the increasing professionalization of the police and coroners. Today, the city office that has replaced it is known as the Institut médico-légal de Paris. Meanwhile, the word morgue itself has come a long way—from its roots in a grim spectacle, it's now become a place of professionalism and respect.

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Big Questions
Do Media Outlets Write Obituaries for Old or Ill Celebrities in Advance?
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Archie D'Cruz:

Oh, absolutely, and not for just the old and ill, but also for the very famous. (You can bet, for example, that pieces would have been penned on Barack Obama as soon as he was first elected president).

They are known as advance obituaries, and while not all major news organizations do it, many of the largest certainly do. Of the ones that I know of, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the BBC, CNN, and leading news agencies Reuters, AP, and AFP all maintain obits, which are updated on a regular basis.

Obit writers at The New York Times, which is known to have at least 1700 of these posts on file, will sometimes even contact the subject of their grim pieces for interviews, with the request posed as “We’re updating your biographical file” or “This is for possible future use.”

With someone like Stephen Hawking, the web tribute with images and video would very likely have been prepared in advance as well. Television networks like the BBC also pre-prepare video packages that can be aired soon after a celebrity death.

This practice of creating advance obituaries can (and often does) lead to more than just embarrassment.

The most famous recent one that I can recall was that of Apple founder Steve Jobs, declared dead by Bloomberg in 2008—three years before his actual passing. Bloomberg was updating its advance obit but wound up publishing it by mistake, sending shockwaves through Wall Street.

Its retraction was even more cringe-worthy, refusing to even name Jobs and simply saying, “An incomplete story referencing Apple Inc. was inadvertently published by Bloomberg News ... the item was never meant for publication and has been retracted.”

Several other well-known people have befallen the same fate—among them George H. W. Bush (who Der Spiegel described in its 2013 obit as a “colorless politician whose image only improved when it was compared to the later presidency of his son, George W. Bush”), and several world figures including Nelson Mandela, Gerald Ford, and Fidel Castro whose obits were wrongly published on CNN’s development site in 2003.

A (mistaken) CNN obituary for Gerald Ford

Sometimes, though, a too-hastily published obit can turn out to have a silver lining.

In 1888, several newspapers announced Alfred Nobel’s passing, in a mix-up related to his brother Ludwig’s death. A French newspaper, in its obit on the Swedish arms manufacturer, thundered “The merchant of death is dead,” adding that Nobel “became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before (through his invention of dynamite).”

On reading that report, Nobel is said to have become distressed about how the world would remember him. It led to him bequeathing the bulk of his estate to form the Nobel Prize in 1895. He died a year later.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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