While Ademir Jorge Goncalves and friends were drinking sugarcane liquor in a park in Santo Antonio de Platina, Brazil, a car crashed. The driver was killed and his body was brought to the hospital, where Goncalves’s aunt and uncle were brought in to examine it.
“The corpse was badly disfigured,” said a police spokesperson. The family members confirmed the body was indeed that of their nephew and a funeral was held the next day. But Goncalves was not dead, just hung over. “Before long, the walking dead appeared at the funeral,” said the police officer. “It was a relief.”
Goncalves’s case was one of misidentification but in other instances doctors have declared a death only to see the body move several hours later. Despite advances in modern medicine, several simple tests are still used to determine whether or not someone is dead. One is the stethoscope, used to detect heartbeat. Another method is to shine a flashlight into the eye and see if the pupils dilate. A third is a series of pain-reflex tests, such as pinching sensitive spots like the ears and nose.
But each can fail, and patients can come back from the dead, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as Lazarus Syndrome. One of the most common death-mimicking conditions is hypothermia, which lowers the body’s temperature and slows heart and respiratory rates. Also, stroke victims and those who overdose on drugs can have pulses so slow as to be undetectable.
Such was the case this past February with 45 year-old Noelia Sernia, of Colombia. She has multiple sclerosis and was admitted to the hospital after a heart attack. Noelia survived for ten hours on life support, but then had a second heart attack and did not respond to resuscitation attempts. Her blood pressure and heart rate had both gone flat and she was declared clinically dead. Medical staff signed her death certificate and her body was transferred to a funeral home to be prepared for burial. Just as a mortician was about to inject embalming fluid into her leg, she moved.
One day in 1994, Mildred C. Clarke of Albany, New York was found by her landlord, sprawled on her living room floor, “cold and motionless.” Neither paramedics nor the Albany County Coroner found a pulse, heartbeat or signs of breath. The coroner declared her dead and Mildred was zipped into a body bag and taken to the morgue. She was left for an hour and a half in a chilled room meant to keep corpses fresh. A morgue attendant wheeled her out of the cooler for a trip to the funeral home but noticed the body bag was rising up and down. He listened closely and heard breathing, then unzipped the bag and found a very much alive Mildred.
On New Year’s Eve 1996, an epileptic British woman named Daphne Banks overdosed on epilepsy pills and sleeping tablets. She was discovered by her husband and pronounced dead by the family doctor. But three hours later, an undertaker preparing to put Daphne in a refrigerated body tray saw a vein twitch and heard snoring.
Some of the oddest Lazarus Syndrome cases are the oldest. In 1906, Frederick J. Harvey, the 20 year-old son of a millionaire Kansas restaurateur, died suddenly. His devastated young fiancée visited the family’s tomb to examine the body and became convinced Frederick was only sleeping. Four months later, he emerged from what was referred to as a “trance”. The couple was married soon thereafter.
In the late 16th century, the body of a man named Matthew Wall was being carried to a grave in Braughing, England when a pallbearer tripped. The coffin was dropped, a jolt that somehow awakened the formerly deceased Matthew.
Another example from the 16th century is that of Marjorie Halcrow Erskine of Chirnside, Scotland. She was buried in a shallow grave by a church official intent on returning later to steal her jewelry. When he tried to cut off her finger to snatch a ring, she awoke.
The case is startlingly similar to that of an early 17th century Scottish woman named Marjorie Elphinstone, who was buried in the town of Ardtannies. Soon afterward, robbers dug up her grave and tried to pry loose the jewelry from her body. She groaned and they fled.