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1746 / Paris

What the Dead Ate



It is an opinion widely spread in Germany that certain dead persons masticate in their graves and devour whatever may be close to them, that they are even heard to eat like pigs, with a certain low cry, and as if growling and grunting.

A German author, named Michael Rauff, has composed a work, entitled “Of the Dead Who Masticate in Their Graves.” He sets it down as a proved and sure thing that there are certain dead persons who have devoured the linen and everything that was within reach of their mouth, and even their own flesh, in their graves. He remarks that in some parts of Germany, to prevent the dead from masticating, they place a lump of earth under their chin in the coffin; elsewhere they place a little piece of money and a stone in their mouth; elsewhere they tie a handkerchief tightly round their throat. The author cites some German writers who make mention of this ridiculous custom; he quotes several others who speak of dead people that have devoured their own flesh in their sepulcher.

Some years ago, at Bar-le-Duc, a man was buried in the cemetery, and a noise was heard in his grave; the next day they disinterred him and found that he had gnawed the flesh of his arms; and this we learned from ocular witnesses. This man had drunk brandy and had been buried as dead. Rauff speaks of a woman of Bohemia, who, in 1355, had eaten in her grave half her shroud. In the time of Luther, a man who was dead and buried, and a woman the same, gnawed their own entrails. Another dead man in Moravia ate the linen clothes of a woman who was buried next to him.

All this is very possible, but that those who are really dead move their jaws, and amuse themselves with masticating whatever may be near them, is a childish fancy—like what the ancient Romans said of their Manducus, which was a grotesque figure of a man with an enormous mouth, and teeth proportioned thereto, which they caused to move by springs, and grind his teeth together, as if this lifeless figure had wanted to eat. They frightened children with them, and threatened them with the Manducus.

Image: Dumourier Dining in State at St James's, 15th of May, 1793. Via Flickr

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About the Author

Antoine Augustin Calmet, from The Phantom World. Calmet entered the Benedictine order, studying philosophy at Saint-Evre in Toul and theology at Münster in Alsace. He was ordained a priest in 1696. He wrote a twenty-three-volume exegesis of the Bible, published between 1707 and 1716. For his book on the occult, Calmet compiled newspapers, travelogues, and official reports. It became a bestseller and a source for the nineteenth-century gothic literary movement.

American table manners are, if anything, a more advanced form of civilized behavior than the Europeans, because they are more complicated and further removed from the practical result, always a sign of refinement.
Miss Manners, 1982
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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