KB Safety Coffin

Kimberly Bannister – Safety Cross

An Essay by Cheryl Diane Kidder

“We live by tunneling for we are a people buried alive.”
On Orchids, Anne Carson

“Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly
Softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world”
Reconciliation, Walt Whitman, 1865-66

I don’t really believe in death. Especially my own, my family’s, my friends’, or anyone I know. If someone as smart as Joan Didion writes about her magical thinking when her husband dies in front of her at the dinner table one evening, then I figure I can do something like that too, though I have a lot more evidence about the whole non-death notion.

I know exactly when this started. The film was The Thomas Crown Affair, made in 1968, but I most likely saw it on TV some time after that. Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. The actual story of the film is not important. What has been important to me is my memory of the last ten minutes of the film: Dunaway has fallen in love with McQueen, a con man who has faked his death. At the cemetery she’s crying behind huge sunglasses. Windmills of Your Mind rises up out of the ether. The camera pulls back, the frame opens up—Dunaway by the grave, McQueen directly overhead in a helicopter. Will Dunaway ever know that McQueen is still alive? Did he really love her after all? The camera pulls back again to reveal the Boston skyline, the helicopter flying away in one direction, Dunaway’s limo pulling away in the opposite direction. The music explodes, the credits roll.

When my father died of a sudden heart attack in 1975, I was almost 21. I came to terms with the death by believing that he had actually flown away in a helicopter, that he would get in touch with us when it was safe to do so. Because I kept this scenario to myself, I was able to maintain it for decades. Even though he never turned up, it was surprisingly easier to understand than his being dead and buried in the ground.


In 1792 Safety Coffins were invented after the report of a cholera victim who had been buried alive and attempted to crawl his way out of his coffin but failed. Rather ingenious, the coffin was fitted with a lever or a buzzer on the inside. If the person inside the coffin was not really dead, upon awakening six feet under, they could pull the lever or ring the bell which was attached to a bell topside next to the tombstone to alert any passersby that a terrible thing had happened: a living person had been buried. The trick would have been to hear the alert as soon as it was sounded, show up with several shovels, excavate the prematurely buried person in time to unbolt the coffin lid and get them life-giving oxygen. There was another possible drawback: the coffin itself was not at first fitted with any extra oxygen, so if the not-quite deceased individual didn’t immediately wake and notice their dilemma, they would never have a chance to ring the bell at all. Not surprisingly there are no documented cases of anyone being saved by a Safety Coffin. Safety Coffins never quite caught on. One large drawback was that the system could be activated by the natural movement of the corpse’s decomposition, giving a false positive. The last known Safety Coffin was built in 1897.


Cemeteries seem to me to be some of the best places to be, especially the ones you can find driving around the cornfields of the Midwest. You can hear the wind, the land stretches out flat in all directions, and unless there’s snow on the ground, you can’t even hear your footsteps as you walk from one gravestone to another, circling outside an ornate wrought iron fence and back in through a gate no more than two feet tall that hasn’t been locked in decades. I wish there were overstuffed chairs with headrests, maybe a couch with a nice ottoman. There are no rules or judgments here, no arguments, no yelling, no need, no emergencies, no expectations. It’s a cocoon where all the lucky people live now, the ones who no longer have to battle, work, suffer, feel pain, pay bills or lose those they love. Everyone and everything they love is all in one place; they are surrounded by them and always will be. I take another photo, like a kiss, before I get back in the car.


In 1932 a police photographer stashed away his entire collection of crime scene photographs, almost all violent crimes, in the bottom drawer of an old dresser that was passed around from family member to storage locker to thrift store and finally ended up in someone’s hands who put all of the black and white photos into a book. Each page has two to four photos of dead bodies—bodies that met untimely deaths.  Not natural live-until-you’re-worn-out type of deaths, but violent, sudden deaths, which is why the police photographer was sent to the scene in the first place. I bought a used copy three years ago and looked at each page, each photo just once, then closed the book and hid it away somewhere I wouldn’t remember. I don’t need to see the pictures again; they can still flash in my memory. The ones I don’t remember, that blurred together in my mind, are mundane and similar—car accident, stabbing, shooting. It’s the still clothed, still in the street, and chopped up bodies I recall without wanting to.


I’ve recently become enamored of the various programs on the Investigation Discovery channel. The titles are like books from a morality bible that get a new chapter every time the station dreams up another way to reenact “real life” murders, swindles, rapes, and horrors of other types: See No Evil, Devil in the Details, Motives & Murder, Homicide Hunter, Deadly Sins, and Web of Lies. I’ve watched so many seasons that I discovered they often reenact the same murders, just from a slightly different skew and of course with an updated series moniker. This way, if you missed the Long Island Serial Killer when it was covered on Web of Lies, you’ll get to see it play out again on Motives & Murder. When I first became aware of this repetition I was mildly exhilarated: maybe there was actually a finite number of murders in the world after all.

I started watching the rebranded editions of these shows with a renewed vigor for the genre: I wasn’t watching a slippery slope we were already colliding madly down with no end in sight. I was watching historical reenactments, like for Civil War battles or the escapades of the Knights of the Round Table. Watching seemed ennobling, informative, cathartic, enlightening.


Dead bodies—dead before they should naturally be dead—imply some form of violence, some introduction of a sudden calamity, and maybe something human-induced. My dead body book included only one naturally occurring event even though it wasn’t nature exactly who had pulled the plug.

In this one photo you see an entire living room. The photographer’s back must have been up against the fourth wall. It’s the 1920s. There is an ornate carpet on the floor, three pieces of matching plush furniture, and an end table with a glass-topped lamp, unlit. In the center of the opposite wall, close enough to see the faces but far enough away from the lens to capture the entire scene, are four bodies sitting in almost natural poses on the velveteen couch. The four, two young women and two young men, are sitting very close together, as they must have been in life. They are sitting girl / boy / girl / boy. It’s easy to assume this was a Saturday night, date night. The girl’s legs are demurely crossed at the ankles, their un-scuffed shoes have straps kept in place with buttons and short heels. The men both wear tweed slacks with wide legs that obscure their footwear.

The girl / boy / girl / boy, starting from the left, are each leaning on the other’s shoulder with the first girl’s arm draped over the carved wood arm of the couch, her head bent back, not awkwardly, exposing her neck. Her dress has a flower print; her hands appear manicured. We see the underside of her thin, naked arm face up. It is pearlescent in its paleness and unmarred surface.

The final boy, the boy on the far right of the couch, has had the furthest to fall. He is almost horizontal to the floor though his knees are propped up as if he has just dozed off for a moment. But even in black and white, you can see he has a cut on his forehead, and you think he must have hit the hard wood arm of the sofa when he fell over—with that you know what you’re looking at is not four young people sleeping, but four dead bodies, still in their date-night clothes. You are surprised there is no gore, no black blood pooling on the floor, no exaggerated signs of facial grimacing or the telltale signs that any of them knew what was happening.

The caption reads, “Carbon Monoxide Poisoning.”


In the dead body book, there was a surprisingly large number of dismembered corpses that had been put back together on top of a steel examination table. I turned the pages without lingering, though the pictures did not disturb me. I could make no connection between those large lumps of cut up flesh and live people walking down the street. They were devoid of blood or clothes, and their faces, those who had faces, had been turned away from the camera or took on the semblance of sleep. They did not frighten me.

I was likewise not bothered by the pictures of mobsters in baggy suits laying sprawled in the middle of a street or a back alley, their faces caved in, arms and legs in backward positions, blood looking like black ink covering their faces, often beyond recognition. The book kindly included the criminal status of the dead body in these cases, and so it was easy to come to the conclusion that this was about as natural a death as someone with this type of job and history was likely to earn. These photos were always of solitary male bodies, always clothed, no indication of who they had once been, whether they had a mother or a father, a wife or children waiting for them to come home. The implicit caption on these photographs is “He got what he deserved.”


The reenactments on the Investigation Discovery shows are more explicit than even the most gruesome police crime scene photo. Each episode has a male narrator who introduces the murder victim then backtracks through their personal history. This history is skewed depending on how the victim died. For instance, a former high school football star is found shot dead in his car on a deserted road at age 26, the apparent victim of a love triangle. The murderer turns out to be the ex-boyfriend of the victim’s new girlfriend who he’d only just begun dating. The narrator’s voice takes on a clear shaming tone whenever the girlfriend’s name comes up and a particularly sympathetic tone whenever he speaks about the deceased.

Another victim, a young girl hitchhiking on a deserted stretch of road, is found many years later, recognizable only by her jewelry and the label inside her jeans which haven’t been popular since the 1980s. We are told she ran with a rough crowd, partied too much, and got involved with the wrong people. And yet, after forty-five minutes of investigation, they are nowhere closer to finding out who killed her than they were when we were first introduced to her. The narrator does his best to throw in notes of sympathy for the victim, but the clear inference is that if this girl had not been hitchhiking, not hung out with undesirables, not taken drugs, not been drunk, she might not have been killed. The narrator leads us to believe that it is no surprise her killer has not yet been apprehended, and that the danger still exists for girls who insist on behaving in this fashion. This is familiar territory for me. I grew up learning to be afraid of almost everything.


My mother had a habit of relaying particularly gruesome and far-flung stories she’d read in Reader’s Digest to my sister and me in, I can only assume, an effort to keep us from suffering the same fates as the poor men and women chronicled in the glossy-paged magazine that arrived once a month and then was neatly stacked on the coffee table in the family room. I couldn’t tell you where the Bible was kept in our house, growing up, or if we even had a family Bible, but I always knew where the Reader’s Digests were.

There was a truck driver who had been driving his truck a very long time, so long that he had neglected visiting a bathroom. And there were no bathrooms in sight. He thought if he could just make it a few more miles, he’d be okay. Instead, by the time he pulled his truck over to the side of the road, climbed down and ran out into a field, he dropped dead of an exploded bladder.

It did not matter if there was ever such a thing as an exploded bladder. It was in the Reader’s Digest, so it had to be true, or true enough to use as fear propaganda to keep your children in line. So, even though those stories had gruesome endings, and even though I have carried all of these urban myths with me through childhood, teenage-hood, young adulthood and on, I never believed they were things that could happen to me. I figured if these were the worst the world had to confront me with, I’d probably be okay, at least in the bathroom department.


Each Investigation Discovery episode is neatly summed up, and usually solved, by the end of the hour. When I watch episode after episode, people missing and murdered over the last thirty years, and I turn off the TV and look around me, my room looks just the same, the heat outside feels just the same, the birds in the morning are just as loud, and I wonder if maybe the dead bodies are the fortunate ones. I look around and see a world of things to be done, but I can’t move, don’t want to move. And I start looking for another murder show to watch, hopefully one of the true ones where they haven’t found the killer yet, when the tip-line number flashes up on the screen and for a moment I imagine I’m the body they’ve found, or I’m the killer they’re looking for. Still, it gives me a good reason to keep my doors locked, to bury myself deeper into the couch cushions and start believing that problems like dead bodies can be figured out if you have the right clues and forensic tools.

Cheryl Diane Kidder’s work, nominated seven times for the Pushcart Prize, has appeared in Able Muse, Potomac Review, CutThroat Journal of the Arts, Weber–The Contemporary West, Pembroke Magazine, Brevity, Brain, Child, Identity Theory, In Posse Review, and elsewhere. For a full list see: TrueWest: cheryldkidder.blogspot.com. She lives in Tucson.