Coffin birth is a term from 20th century forensic medicine. Today, it is referred to as postmortem fetal extrusion. It describes an extremely rare phenomenon, but one that must have occurred a few times in the course of human history. In a coffin birth, a pregnant woman who has already died has given birth to a child. For all who are confronted with it, it is an extremely strange, frightening, not to say scary event.
A coffin birth cannot be compared to a natural birth, where a child is born through labor. Researchers believe that it is initiated by decomposition processes in the already decomposing body. Due to putrefactive gases, contractions of the uterine muscles occur after rigor mortis in pregnant corpses. Putrefactive gases are produced, which lead to distension of the womb. Pressure builds up and the fetus is forced out of the body. Scientifically, this is a false birth.
Actual evidence of a coffin birth
In a medieval tomb in Bologna, Italy, researchers found the skeletons of a young woman and her fetus in 2010. Skull injuries to the woman indicated that she had undergone medical treatment that led to her death. The child was a very rare coffin birth, according to the researchers, because its remains are located between the mother’s thighs. Based on the size of the fetus, they assumed that the mother must have been as early as 38 weeks gestation and died either during or shortly after birth. In all likelihood, the woman suffered from pregnancy-related poisoning. Through a small hole in the skull, one tried in the Middle Ages to lower the rising pressure in the skull. Since healing processes had already begun, the woman must have lived for a while after the treatment. Such pregnancy complications are still current today and can still lead to the death of mother and child.
Documented coffin birth in Germany – discovered in 1972
Pregnant deceased were buried like others. If the infant had died after birth, a double burial would have taken place. Thus, in later exhumations, although extremely rare, it happened that remains of fetuses or infants were found between the legs of their deceased mothers. The last known case in Germany dates from 1972, when the deceased woman from a town in Rhineland-Palatinate could be identified because both an entry in the death register and a gravestone existed. She had been buried in 1871 and was only 21 years old. Only the name of the woman was noted on the gravestone. Accordingly, a coffin birth must have taken place.
Since coffin births are frightening and uncanny for the persons found and the surviving relatives, numerous myths and horror stories entwine around the topic. For example, there are reports of supposedly dead infants who were already in the morgue and then suddenly whimpered (for example, a case in Argentina). The child was not dead at all, the doctors had falsely diagnosed its death. These, too, are inconceivable occurrences that require detailed clarification. In a coffin birth, mother and child are already dead. It is impossible for a dead woman to give birth to a living child under her own power. However, modern medicine makes some things possible: depending on the stage of development of the unborn child and with the help of the latest medical technology, doctors today would try to save the unborn child if it is still alive in the womb. But just 150 years ago, such possibilities were unimaginable.