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Saved by the Bell

From graveyards and death halls to boxing matches and the 90s sitcom, the idiom “saved by the bell” seems to ring through many generations.

There are a number of common words that have different meanings for scientists; ‘cultures’ are in Petri dishes, ‘medium’ isn’t just the size of a T-shirt, and ‘cleavage’ is the process of cell division, and not, well, cleavage… As a fan of the history of anatomical sciences, the phrase “saved by the bell” always made me think of shallow graves, trapdoor coffins, and the fear of being buried alive. Who even knew about the TV show? (Most people. That’s on me.)

“Saved by the bell,” is now used when a last-minute intervention saves you from catastrophe — or what feels like a catastrophe. But the phrase originates from the fear of being buried alive. Prior to 1968, there was no definition of brain death, nor any discrimination between brain death and heart death. There wasn’t enough information to always ascertain whether someone was truly dead. As Edgar Allen Poe put it, “The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?” The best indication was to try to find a heartbeat, but between inaccurate readings and other mistakes, premature burial affected many unlucky folks. Up to the mid-19th century, there were stories of people who were mistakenly pronounced dead and buried quickly, just to be discovered with bruised knees, broken fingernails, and scratched-up coffins from trying to escape an unintentionally fatal burial. As these stories spread, taphephobia (the fear of being buried alive) grew, prompting more people to request cremation or beheading before burial, just in case.

To prevent premature burial and taphephobia, innovative funeral home directors and unexpected casket engineers brought us death halls and safety coffins. In Germany, funeral homes constructed morgue-like buildings called “death halls” where the recently deceased would take residence for a few days prior to burial. The bodies would have bells fastened to their fingers using a string so that if there were any movement, the sound would alert an attendant that the deceased was, well, not deceased. After their 2-3 day stay in the death hall, or whenever signs of decomposition set in, they would be ready to move six feet under.

Safety coffin designs had a few additional precautionary features: an inlet for allowing fresh air to reach the body, a ladder or escape route, and of course a bell or other alarm to alert passersby for help. And so came the claim of being “saved by the bell.” As embalming technology surfaced, cremation became more popular, and modern medicine found ways to assess brain death, we had more sure-fire ways of knowing when people were dead and taphephobia subsided.

Today, “saved by the bell” is also used in boxing, where the sound of the end-of-round bell can save a boxer from defeat if it rings before they are counted out. And, as I recently learned, is most famously known for the show set at Bayside High School. Though less popular than the early 90s sitcom, Poe’s 1844 story “The Premature Burial” inspired by Victorian Era taphephobia also comes back to being saved by the bell.


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