Saturday, 9 June 2012

Eating Your Burial Shroud

In German folklore, revenants known as nachzehrer would eat their own shrouds and even chew upon their own bodily extremities, accompanied by much grunting and groaning, and in so doing, caused outbreaks of plague. Another example of a shroud-eating corpse can be found in the Malleus Maleficarum [Hammer of Witches], the notorious late fifteenth-century handbook for witch-finders.  We are told that a recently deceased woman, supposedly a witch, was gradually eating the shroud in which she had been buried, and that ‘half the shroud [had been] absorbed through the mouth and throat into the stomach, and consumed’.   Furthermore, the plague devastating the town at the time would not cease until she had ‘eaten the whole shroud and absorbed it into her stomach’.  The authorities, however, had the corpse decapitated and thereupon the plague apparently ceased. 

The notion that a buried corpse might grunt and groan like a swine, eat its own shroud and chomp on its own fingers and limbs out of hunger, aroused widespread hysteria in the seventeenth century.  In his Dissertatio De Masticatione Mortuorum (1679), Phillip Rohr, a seventeenth-century German scholar and investigator of the occult, tells us that in 1672, for example, the corpse of an unnamed man buried near Leipzig was supposedly found to have eaten both his arms.  Similarly, the body of a man buried at Egwanschitz, Moravia, had not only ‘devoured and swallowed his own shroud but also half-devoured the corpse of a woman in a nearby grave’. Furthermore, many bodies ‘both in the town itself and in country places round about were heard to utter strange voices’ when the plague was decimating Marburg in 1581.  And in the village of Nienstade, 1603, a body was heard to be ‘uttering from the grave a hoarse sound like the heavy grunting of swine’, akin to Cuntius, the sixteenth-century Silesian spectrum, who would make a ‘noise like a hog that eat grains, smacking and grunting very sonorously’. Rohr attributed such happenings to the Devil whom, he said, would possess and manipulate certain corpses, and make them grunt like pigs, in order to terrify the living and slander the dead:

Not only do corpses eat but they also make an extraordinary grunting noise.  As it is beyond a doubt that this manducation is caused by the demon, so also is it certain that he is the cause of the noise … Assuredly the Devil can produce this noise as from the corpse, and he effects this in the same way as he has spoken through many bodies … Yea, he hath even spoken from skulls and from the lips of dead men … He is far more able then to utter a voice from a body which is but newly interred

More recently, a skeleton was unearthed in a mass grave from the Venetian plague of 1576 of a woman buried with a brick in her mouth in what appears to be an attempt to prevent her post-mortem chewing and thereby prevent the spread of the plague, as per the aforementioned beliefs.

Indeed, burial clothes could prove an encumbrance for a revenant.  A vampire that reportedly molested the village of Liebava in eighteenth-century Moravia would take off the ‘linen clothes’ in which he had been buried, and leave them by the graveside while he went on the rampage, obviously in the nude, and put them back on again when he returned.[10]  However, an unnamed Hungarian visiting the village at the time promised that he would dispatch the vampire.  So that night, the Hungarian hid in the graveyard and waited for the vampire to depart, then stole his burial clothes, and climbed a nearby church steeple to await the revenant.  When the vampire did return, he was furious to find that his clothes missing, and espying the Hungarian up the steeple with his attire, began to ascend the ladder to get at his tormenter.  But as he reached the last rung, the Hungarian decapitated the revenant with a spade and thereby kept his promise.


Gordon Melton, The Vampire Book: An Encyclopedia of the Undead (Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 2nd edition, 1999)
Heinrich Kramer & James Sprenger, The Malleus Maleficarum, 1484 (trs.) M. Summers (New York: Dover, 1971)
Phillip Rohr, Dissertatio De Masticatione Mortuorum, 1679 [Quoted (in) Summers (1961)]
Augustin Calmet, Treatise on Vampires and RevenantsThe Phantom World, 1751 (3rd ed.) trs. H. Christmas, 1850 (Reprint: Brighton: Desert Island Books, 1993)

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