Legend: A foreign family unknowingly consumes the ashes of a relative shipped to them for burial.
Example: [De Vos, 1996]
When the family moved to North America, they kept in constant touch with their European relatives. Letters and parcels
regularly made their way from one shore to another. After a long period of silence, a small box arrived from the U.S. Inside,
carefully wrapped in tissue paper, was a jar of grey powder. There was no note, but since many of the previous parcels had
contained ready-to-make packaged mixes, the European family members thought that this powder, too, was a mix that would be
prepared by simply adding water. The sauce was made and served, but it wasn't the best they had eaten! Several days later,
a letter arrived from the U.S. explaining that the father had died, and because he had always been homesick, he wished his
ashes to be spread over his home town. Grandma hoped that the rest of the family would not be inconvenienced and that the
letter would get to them before the ashes, which were being sent separately in a jar and were securely wrapped in tissue paper.
The relative's remains are usually shipped in an urn mistaken for an ordinary jar by the recipients, but in many
versions of this legend the confusion is caused by the ashes' having been packaged in some sort of makeshift container such
as a small box or a re-used food container such as a cocoa tin.
The food item for which the remains are mistaken varies: an instant drink; a condiment, spice, or sauce mix (generally
served with meat), flour (baked into bread or cake), powdered soup, or even dried coconut.
The explanatory letter does not arrive in time because it is mailed separately several days after the ashes are
shipped (sometimes due to post office regulations that prevent letters from being sent inside packages), or because it is
posted at the same time as the package but gets delayed in transit. Other versions feature an identifying letter that accompanies
the remains but is written in a foreign language, and the family eats the remains before the letter is translated.
Origins: This Mmm . . . powdered uncle!tale has circulated both as a legend and as a joke, and it features several themes
common to both: unwitting consumption of a disgusting substance, disaster caused by unfamiliarity with modern technology,
and humorous mishaps initiated by unsophisticated ethnic "rubes." It was widespread in the years just after the
end of World War II, when European families in war-torn areas commonly received food shipments from relatives (and powdered
food products were fairly new). The two main variants of this story involve a relative in an English-speaking country (e.g.,
Canada, Australia, the United States) shipping home the ashes of a family member who fled Britain to escape the war, or a
relative in America sending the remains of an immigrant family member back to a country in continental Europe. (The former
version incorporates the delayed letter; the latter features the note requiring translation.)
As folklorist Charles Clay Doyle has noted, this legend is similar to a grim bit of anti-semitic humor dating from the
Renaissance, in which an Italian Jew attempts to smuggle the corpse of a friend home to Venice for burial (an illegal act
at the time) by packing the dismembered body in a jar with spices and honey. During the boat trip back to Italy, a gentile
passenger mistakes the substance in the jar for a delicacy and eats portions of it.
Legend: A woman dies of a heart attack with a phone still in her hand. The telephone in her husband's crypt is later discovered
to be off the hook.
[Collected on the Internet, 1998]
One of the Ball Brothers, of the canning jar family, had a great fear of being entombed alive. Anyway, he had a telephone
installed in his so he could call out if this happened to him.
As the story goes, he dies...this story is to have happened in the late 1930's. A few days later, some of his wife's
family got worried because they could only get a busy signal on her phone. Upon entering her home, they found her dead, a
look of fright frozen on her face, clutching the phone. When they went to entomb her after the funeral a couple of days later,
you can guess what they found...yep, the phone was off the hook INSIDE the crypt.
The dead man is variously described as an unnamed Englishman, a wealthy retired British businessman, or one of the
Ball brothers (American).
The husband is interred in a crypt or buried in a coffin.
The wife dies two years after her husband, the implication being that when it was her time to die, he called to
tell her so.
Origins: The fear of being buried alive has led to the invention of various devices whose purpose was to allow the hastily-entombed
to signal that a mistake It's dead . . . had been made. It wasn't a misplaced fear either -- even in this century, physicians
of solid repute have cited numerous instances of people being pronounced dead and then stirring to life again, reviving from
a coma or some trauma that had reduced the pulse or respiration to imperceptibility.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, contraptions employing bells, buzzers and flags were devised to send such distress signals.
As technology advanced, so did what people wanted to take to their graves as a precaution against such an eventuality. These
days it's telephones and modems.
The last will of David Hughes provides for a laptop computer powered by a solar electric panel and linked by radio with
computer networks throughout the world to be buried with him. Though his stated purpose is to continue to interact with the
living even after his demise, one could see that such a connection would also serve him in the case of premature burial.
(Our Buried Alive explores in far greater detail the fear of being buried alive, some actual cases of it, and the variety
of contraptions and precautions folks have taken to prevent live entombment being their own fate.)
Mary Baker Eddy was long rumored to have a telephone installed in her crypt, but this has proved out to be only folklore.
During the building of her monument at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston, her body was kept in that cemetery's general receiving
vault. A guard was hired to stay with the body until it was interred and the tomb sealed, and a telephone was installed at
the receiving vault for his use during that period. There was never a phone at her monument.
Yet lore has a way of building upon the tiniest fact until a story has been fully fleshed out. The Baker Eddy crypt phone
became, through rumor, an instrument installed as a comfort for a fear-driven woman who was terrified by the thought of finding
herself, er, encrypted. Even from there the story continued to grow:
[Collected on the Internet, 2002]
The phone was only connected to a special phone at her house. Therefore, if that particular phone in the house rang,
it meant it wasn't just another phone call - it was an urgent call from Ms. Baker Eddy because she had been buried alive.
So, one stormy evening lightning hit the phone line and the special phone rang and a servant at the house fainted (or died)
Our legend of the deceased husband summoning his wife to his side plays upon our fascination with the supernatural. We
don't want to believe death is the end of things, so we embrace stories that seem to confirm it won't be. If communication
between the dead and the living is possible, then death must not be all that final a destination.
Phone or no phone, to date there's no confirmed instance of contact being made from beyond the grave.
Claim: The "hanging man" in a funhouse turns out to be the corpse of an outlaw.
Origins: In December 1976 a Universal Studios camera crew arrived at the Nu-Pike Amusement Park in Long Beach, California,
to film an episode of the television action show, the Six Million Dollar Man. In What time is the buffet? preparing the set
in a corner of the funhouse, a worker moved the "hanging man," causing one of this prop's arms to come off. Inside
it was human bone. This was no mere prop; this was a dead guy!
The body was that of Elmer McCurdy, a young man who in 1911 robbed a train of $46 and two jugs of whiskey in Oklahoma.
He announced to the posse in pursuit of him that he would not be taken alive. He was proved right -- they killed him in the
McCurdy began his career as a sideshow attraction right after his embalming. He looked so darned good dressed up in his
fancy clothes that the undertaker propped him up in a corner of the funeral home's back room and charged locals a nickel to
see "The Bandit Who Wouldn't Give Up." The nickels were dropped into the corpse's open mouth (from where they were
later retrieved by the entreprenurial undertaker).
No next of kin showed up to claim McCurdy, so the corpse kept mouthing nickels for a few years. Carnival promoters wanted
to buy the stiff, but the undertaker turned them down. McCurdy was producing a steady income for the funeral parlor -- why
tamper with success?
In 1915, two men showed up and claimed that McCurdy was their brother. They hauled the body away, Elmer McCurdy supposedly
to give him a decent burial in the family plot. In reality, McCurdy's "brothers" were carnival promoters and this
was a ruse to get the deceased away from that proprietary undertaker. The promotors exhibited McCurdy throughout Texas under
the same billing as the undertaker had given him -- "The Bandit Who Wouldn't Give Up."
After that tour, McCurdy popped up everywhere, including an amusement park near Mount Rushmore, lying in an open casket
in a Los Angeles wax museum, and in a few low-budget films. Before the Six Million Dollar Man crew discovered this prop to
be a corpse, McCurdy had been hanging in that Long Beach funhouse for four years.
In April 1977, the much-traveled Elmer McCurdy was laid to final rest in Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma. To
make sure the corpse would not make its way back to the entertainment world, the state medical examiner ordered two cubic
yards of cement poured over the coffin before the grave was closed. McCurdy hasn't been seen hanging around amusement parks