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‘Bizarre Burial Beliefs’ debuts at Colfax auditorium

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX — Chad Lewis is a paranormal researcher who studies ghosts and goblins and things that go “bump” in the night — such as werewolves in Transylvania.

Along the way he has written a series of “Road Guides to Haunted Locations” including Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois.

Lewis also has written several “Hidden Headline” books for Wisconsin, Texas and New York.

It was while he was doing research for Hidden Headlines that he began to notice how many newspapers in the late 1800s and early 1900s carried stories about the bizarre ways in which people died.

Lewis also began finding information about some of the stranger beliefs concerning death and burial.

When someone died at home, for example, that person was carried out of the house feet first so the spirit would not see the house and attempt to return.

And that was how Lewis’s newest presentation — Bizarre Burial Beliefs — came about.

Lewis debuted Bizarre Burial Beliefs at the Colfax Municipal Building auditorium as a program for the Colfax Public Library January 29.

Bizarre Burial Beliefs marked the fifth time that Lewis has presented a program for the Colfax Public Library, said Lisa Ludwig, library director.

Ludwig had originally planned to hold Bizarre Burial Beliefs in the library, but after receiving a number of telephone calls from people indicating they were interested in attending the event, she decided to move the program upstairs to the auditorium.

The Colfax Public Library has a maximum capacity of 36 people, and about 40 people attended Lewis’s presentation.

Lewis joked that if anyone remained in the auditorium in the “test audience” after he had finished presenting Bizarre Burial Beliefs, he would plan to do the program elsewhere.

Lewis earned an undergraduate and a graduate degree in psychology from UW-Stout and has been researching the strange and unusual for the past 20 years.

Closer to death

A hundred years ago or two hundred years ago, people were much closer to death because people tended to die at home, Lewis said.

They were also closer to death in another way because the life expectancy in 1900 was 47 years, he said.

Displaying the deceased in the parlor at home became a big family event — which also eventually resulted in the term “funeral parlor,” Lewis said.

Many other traditions and folklore surround death and burial in addition to carrying the deceased out of the house feet first.

For example, when someone died at home, a window was opened to release the spirit.

After a person had died at home, the mirrors were covered so that you could not look in the mirror — in case death might see your reflection and come for you next.

People were buried in their own backyard or in a family burial plot.

Burying people at home changed in the late 1800s because of the Civil War. Dead soldiers had to be shipped back home for the funeral, and the bodies had to be embalmed before they could be shipped, Lewis said.

Cemeteries became popular then, except some cemeteries were in a low-lying area, became flooded after heavy rain, and the caskets floated away.

“Receiving vaults” or “holding vaults” were built in cemeteries, because there were no backhoes at that time, and the vaults were used to hold the caskets in the winter when the ground was frozen until the deceased could be buried in the spring, Lewis said.

Buried alive

In years past, people lived with the fear of being buried alive, Lewis said.

After someone died, family members would hold mirrors below the deceased’s nose to see if he or she would fog the mirror. Checking pulse and body temperature also became commonplace.

And the fear of being buried alive also is the reason that wakes were held at home for friends and family to sit with the deceased, in case he or she woke up and was not dead after all, Lewis said.

What sometimes happened is that people went into diabetic shock or a coma and were pronounced dead and were buried, he said.

During the Black Death plague in Europe, so many people died, and burial space was at such a premium, that officials started digging up the graves of family members to bury a recently-deceased person in the coffin. When they began opening coffin lids, they discovered that a certain percentage of them had long scratch marks on the inside, as if someone had tried to claw their way out, Lewis said.

After that, a number of new inventions came into use, such as drilling breathing holes in coffins, putting spring-loaded covers on coffins and installing cemetery bells, Lewis explained.

The idea behind the bells is that a bell would be put by a grave, and a long rope would extend from the bell underground and into the coffin, with the idea that if the deceased was not dead and woke up, he or she could pull on the rope to ring the bell and alert others that he or she had been buried alive.

Lewis said a theory has been formulated that the cemetery bells are the basis for the saying, “saved by the bell,” although he noted that it also could have come from boxing.

“Graveyard shift” — when loved ones sat at the cemetery to see if the bell would ring — and the term “dead ringer” — are believed to have come from the cemetery bells, Lewis said.

There was only one problem with the cemetery bells: when it was very windy, many of the bells would ring, causing people to think that someone had been buried alive, he said.


One strange case of someone who might have been buried alive is that of a 29-year-old woman named Julia who died in childbirth, Lewis said.

The beautiful young woman was buried in her wedding gown, and after she died, her mother began having strange and vivid dreams of her daughter saying, “come and get me.”

The young woman’s mother was quite disturbed by the dreams and began to seek permission to exhume her daughter’s grave.

Julia was buried in the Mount Carmel Cemetery in a suburb of Chicago.

The only problem, Lewis said, is that it took six years for the mother to get the permission she needed.

When the coffin was opened, after Julia had been in her grave for six years, she had not decomposed at all and looked merely as if she were sleeping, he said.

A picture of Julia was taken after she had been exhumed, and her mother put pictures of Julia in her coffin — and in her wedding gown on her wedding day — on a large carved statue of Julia in her wedding dress as a monument to the young woman, Lewis said.


In the 1800s, the Spiritualist movement was at its height, and people often held séances to contact loved ones who had passed on, Lewis said.

Just as someone might go to a dinner party today, people went to séance parties to participate in communicating with the dead. They often used Ouija boards too, he said.

People were afraid of their dead loved ones coming back to life again or coming back to the house, Lewis said.

This is the reason that cemeteries are located by a body of water or by running water because it is believed that spirits cannot cross water, he said.

It was also believed that spirits cannot cross iron, so iron bars were put over coffins.

Iron fences and gates were installed around cemeteries, too, not to keep people out but to keep the spirits in the cemetery, Lewis said.

People also believed in taking various routes back to the house after a burial so that the spirit could not follow them home. Sometimes people went so far as to paint the house a different color because they believed the spirit of the dead loved one would be unable to find the house if it were a different color, he said.

Trees were planted over graves to contain the spirit of the dead. Bodies sometimes were buried with a brick in the mouth or buried face down so that the deceased could not come back as a vampire, Lewis said.


During the course of his research on the paranormal, Lewis said he has visited Romania, where there are many strange burial customs.

In Romania, a stake is sometimes driven through the bodies to pin them down in the casket so they cannot come back to life. At other times, the deceased is decapitated, and the head and body are buried separately, he said.

Another bizarre custom is to cremate the loved one and then make soup out of the ashes that everyone in the village then consumes. The belief is that the soup spreads out the essence of the spirit so that the spirit cannot come back, Lewis said.


Perhaps you have heard the old saying, “whistling past the graveyard” to describe someone who remains cheerful in difficult circumstances.

In years past, whistling past the graveyard was considered to be bad idea because whistling might encourage the spirits to follow you, Lewis said.

People also believed in holding their breath when they walked past a graveyard so the spirit of someone who had died recently could not gain entry to your body, he said.

Other beliefs included not pointing at a funeral procession because it was believed that you would die soon and also not to speak ill of the dead, Lewis said.

As for superstitions of his own, Lewis throws salt over his left shoulder to keep back luck away.

Whether it works is up for debate, but at the very least, only a little bit if salt ends up wasted, he said.

(One explanation for throwing salt over the left shoulder is that the devil sneaks up on you from the left side, and throwing salt in his eyes will chase him away.)

For more information about Lewis, his research and his books, visit