The Dead

The Bad Old Days

Church on a Gloomy Day
James Osmond / Getty Images

From the Hoax:

  • England is old and small and the local folks started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a "bone-house" and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 coffins was found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive. So they thought they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night the "graveyard shift") to listen for the bell; thus, someone could be "saved by the bell" or was considered a "dead ringer."

The Facts:

England was not so "old and small" that new cemeteries could not be established, but crowded graveyards did exist, due to the Christian tradition of burying the dead in the consecrated grounds of Churchyards. Some towns managed to arrange for cemeteries outside the municipal boundaries, but Church property was not subjected to secular law and the practice continued throughout the Middle Ages.

There were no "bone houses" in England, but there were "charnel houses." These were consecrated buildings for the storage of bones, usually uncovered in the course of digging new graves. If these bones had been buried in coffins in the first place -- a fairly uncommon practice among all but the wealthy -- the coffins had long since fallen apart. Some charnel houses were set up during the plague when the cemetery was overwhelmed by the number of bodies to be buried, and the corpses in previous graves were removed to make room to bury the freshly dead.

It wasn't until the 18th century that the nefarious practice of secretly removing the bones from a grave to make room for new coffins took place. Church sextons would quietly dispose of the bones in nearby pits. The coffins were usually so decayed that if scratch-marks had ever been made inside them they would not be distinguishable in the rotted wood. The gravediggers would often appropriate the hardware (handles, plates, and nails) of decayed coffins to sell for waste metal.1 The matter was resolved in the mid-nineteenth century when London succeeded in passing a law that closed the churchyards and put heavy restrictions on burial within the city limits, and most cities and towns across Great Britain soon followed its lead.

At no time during the Middle Ages was there a prevalent fear that people were getting buried alive, and in no known instance did anyone rig up a bell-pull to notify the living. Most medieval people were smart enough to distinguish a living person from a dead one. Throughout history, there has been the occasional case of someone getting buried alive, but by no means was this as frequent as the hoax would have you believe.

The common phrases used in the last portion of the hoax have absolutely nothing to do with premature burial, and each has its origin in a different source.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the phrase "graveyard shift" dates to the early 20th century. It may have its source in the night shift on nautical vessels, which was called "graveyard watch" for its quiet loneliness.

"Saved by the bell" originates from the sport of boxing, in which a fighter is "saved" from further punishment or from a ten-count when the bell signifies that the round is over. (But the next round is another story.)

A "ringer" is slang for an imposter. It was used in cheating at horse races, when an unscrupulous trainer would substitute a fast horse, or ringer, for a nag with a bad racing record. This sporting association continues in the modern use of the term "ringer" for a professional athlete playing in an amateur game. But a human can also be a ringer in the sense of a person who closely resembles someone else, like the professional entertainers who impersonate celebrities such as Dolly Parton and Cher.

A "dead ringer" is simply someone who is extremely close in appearance to another, in the same way as someone who is "dead wrong" is as wrong as he can possibly be.

Once again, if you have an alternative origin for one of these phrases, please feel free to post it on our bulletin board, and be sure to bring your sources!


1. "cemetery" Encyclopædia Britannica
[Accessed April 9, 2002].

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Snell, Melissa. "The Dead." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Snell, Melissa. (2020, August 27). The Dead. Retrieved from Snell, Melissa. "The Dead." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 6, 2022).