My wife went to a conference recently and returned with all sorts of cool stories and references that she picked up from the guest speaker, who was a mortician. Don’t ask what kind of conference, because I’m not even sure. I just know my wife works with deceased people’s estates and deceased people’s relatives, so going to a conference where a mortician is the guest speaker is fairly routine for her.
So she comes home all full of explanations for things like “graveyard shift,” “wake” and even the old saying “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
I happen to work the graveyard shift at one of my many part time jobs, so I was intrigued. The mortician told my wife that back in the day (i.e. 500-plus years ago), medical science was somewhat unclear on when a person was actually dead and when they were just in a coma. They also drank from lead cups and—according to the mortician—the combination of whiskey and lead could knock someone into a coma and people didn’t know if they were dead or just dead drunk and lead poisoned, so they would lay them on the kitchen table and stand around waiting for them to wake up.
Hence the term “wake.”
However, according to the all-powerful internet, this is a mere hoax, because A) Even though it was the Middle Ages, people were not stupid. If someone was breathing, they were alive. If not, they were dead. B) Most people in the Middle Ages did not have a kitchen, much less a kitchen table to lay people on to wait and see if they were dead and C) Although lead poisoning can indeed be deadly, it doesn’t just happen all at once. It takes years of eating paint chips and/or drinking whiskey from a lead cup.
Trust me on this one: I’ve seen the effect of eating paint chips on my buddy Brad and it has been a slow but gradual decline into psychosis, idiocracy and overall poor judgment during the fantasy football season.
The graveyard shift story the mortician told was that since these Middle Ages boneheads couldn’t figure out if people were alive or dead, they would sometimes dig up coffins and find scratch marks on the inside of the coffin lids. This became such an issue that eventually everyone was buried with a string above their heads that was attached to a bell which was placed over their grave. If a person woke up in a coffin, they would pull the string, ring the bell and someone would come and dig them up. Hopefully.
Since these bell-ringing-not-dead people might wake up in the middle of the night, someone had to hang around the graveyard and listen for the bell.
Hence, the graveyard shift. Other folklore etymology associated with this legend are the words “Saved by the Bell” and “Dead Ringer.” Turns out Saved by the Bell is actually a boxing term (and a television show with Nerd Supreme Leader Samuel “Screech” Powers), while dead ringer simply means someone who looks just like someone else, although you have to wonder if the term originated with the coffin bell gizmo.
This story has more holes in it than a medieval cemetery. First off, why did they have to rig up a string if they were doing the wake thing on the kitchen table? You mean to tell me that after three days in the kitchen the Middle Agers still couldn’t figure out if people were dead and they went ahead and buried them anyway and rigged up the bell system?
I’m no Medical Examiner, but after three days I could make a fairly accurate determination about a person’s life or death status. Think about it.
There were actually some bell ringer coffins created in the 17th and 18th centuries, but they didn’t really work because decaying bodies tend to bloat and shift during the process and sometimes this would cause false alarms, which would no doubt upset both the graveyard shift workers and the immediate family of the dearly departed.
I also checked out the baby with the bathwater story, which turned out to be true. The mortician said that during the Middle Ages, people only bathed about once a year (yikes!). They would heat up a big pot of water and the eldest in the family would bathe first, followed by the rest of the clan in chronological order. The babies would go last and then they would throw out the dirty bathwater.
Hence, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
I could probably argue with this one, too, since I’m having a hard time picturing a medieval baby just floating unobserved in a tub of filthy water while somebody prepares to throw it out, but I won’t because I still can’t get over the fact that they only bathed once a year. Even my paint chip-eating buddy Brad showers once a month or so.
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Randy Hartless is Executive Director of the Parker Area Chamber of Commerce, columnist and regular contributor on KLPZ 1380am.