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Inside a Coffin and Saved by the Bell

My previous article on an idiomatic expression captured a friend’s interest enough for her to refer me to another one: ‘saved by the bell.’ As an expression in the present-day context, the phrase is used when one gets out of a potentially sticky situation in the nick of time.

The frequent assumption, and with good reason, is that the expression traces its origin to the sport of boxing. Indeed, since we are also a boxing nation, we have all seen at one time or another a boxer being pommelled with punches by his opponent who survived only because the bell fortuitously rang just before he was brought down.

My friend’s mention of another more macabre origin stimulated my curiosity enough to make me look up some materials on the subject and do some readings. Indeed, I was surprised to discover that such a mundane expression may possibly have a more sinister origin.

Apparently, it is believed in some quarters that in the 17th century, there were coffins that were built which had bells inside them. Comical as it may sound now, but the bells were supposed to be a thoughtful prop just in case the deceased person suddenly revived after being buried underneath a mass of earth.

With the bell, thus, he could alarm whoever was within hearing distance above ground that he was quite, quite alive. Go figure!

The story may sound ludicrous, but when I was young, it was not uncommon to hear stories of people waking up inside their coffins. One particular story was supposed to have happened in my Mom’s hometown, where a man on the third day of his own wake suddenly opened his eyes and tried to sit up inside the coffin.

And of course all hell broke loose; with condolers getting in each other’s way to try to get as far away from the place as possible. There were even those who escaped through the windows.

Stories like this were rare; but they were not unique. Allegedly, those who returned ‘from the other side’ all told a similar story: of being met by met by a figure believed to be either St. Peter or Jesus Christ Himself; of being told that there had been some sort of mistake and that his time was on earth was not really up yet; of being told to return to the life that he had; and of having to walk along a long and rough road lined with thorns.

That was why, or so it was said, the first thing that the person did after being resurrected inside his own coffin was always to ask for a glass of water. How creepy was that? I would have fainted rather than fetch a glass.

I am sure, knowing things as we do now, that those stories were probably not biologically possible. First of all, there was the formaldehyde; and assuming that none was applied, then decay would have set in soon after death.

Even if the stories were true, I am not sure that they would qualify as NDEs or Near Death Experiences, which are scientifically documented.

The revival of many who underwent NDEs has been made possible because of quick-response teams and the advancement of medical technology.

Those who went through it told remarkably similar stories: of floating above their physical bodies and watching doctors attempting to revive them; of seeing a long tunnel at the end of which was a glorious white light; of seeing their entire lives flashing before them; of feeling engulfed by a sea of peace and love; and of encountering either loved ones who had passed on earlier or a holy figure like Christ Himself.

Each time, the person was told that his mission on earth had not been accomplished and that he had to return back to the physical dimension. All who underwent an NDE would later call it a life-changing experience.

Unlike in the Filipino version, there do not seem to be documented cases of thorny roads in those narrated by people who underwent documented NDEs. Perhaps, this was just a culturally Filipino thing.

Also, most of those who came back from NDEs did so within the sterile confines of emergency rooms which were equipped with state-of-the-art life-saving equipment.

Not quietly decomposing in the tropical heat within the claustrophobic confines of a coffin. Maybe that was why they always asked for a glass of water – because it was frigging hot!

On the other hand, what do I really know? Maybe those stories that I used to hear were indeed true. Most people my age would have heard similar stories when they were growing up.

I would not know about the others; but I don’t seem to be able to recall similar stories allegedly occurring in recent years. Maybe the tales were really just Filipino folklore that people just told each other to pass the time away.

On the other hand, if some of the stories were indeed true, what odds were there some who got back to this side did so regrettably only after the burial? How comforting it would have been, then, for the resurrected to find a bell that could be rung once he realized he was lying six feet under.

Unless there was nobody within hearing distance; in which case he could not really be saved by the bell, now could he?

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