LETTER: Stitch that would waken the dead

From Mr Tim Craig

Sir: The recent revival of Daphne Banks from a mortuary reminded me of the following:

On one of the ships I sailed as a cadet in the Merchant Navy in the early 1960s, there was a death on board off the West African coast. As there were two doctors on the ship to sign the death certificate and no refrigerated space, it was decided to "commit the body to the deep".

The mate sent me down to assist the bo'sun to prepare and stitch up the corpse, as he said I would be unlikely to witness such an occurrence again. The bo'sun, a North Sea Chinaman (ie, he hailed from the Orkney Isles), was in his sixties and had performed the task several times before. He was a deft hand with the palm [leather glove] and needle used to sew the heavy canvas into a shroud around the body, and when he came to the final stitches around the face he pushed the large triangular-shaped needle right through the nose. I winced, and he looked up at me and said, "That's the law of the sea, the last stitch through the nose, if that don't wake him up I know he's dead."

Apparently, it was not uncommon for sailors or passengers to be mistakenly pronounced dead. This was the final test.

Yours sincerely,

Tim Craig

Hindford, Shropshire