Marvin Olasky

George Washington, the father of our country, had taphophobia, fear of graves. When dying in 1799 he recalled several newspaper reports of men thought to be dead who were buried alive. He told his secretary not to bury him until at least three days after his death.

Wikipedia states, "Before the advent of modern medicine, the fear was not entirely irrational. Throughout history, there have been numerous cases of people being accidentally buried alive." Legends tell of coffins opened for some reason and corpses found with hands raised and palms turned upwards. In past centuries some among the wealthy purchased "safety coffins" with breathing tubes and ropes attached to external bells: Someone mostly dead could signal outsiders that life remained.

But nothing so macabre could happen in these days of "modern medicine," right? Hmm—what about being one of perhaps thousands of patients who, according to neuroscientist Adrian M. Owen, "are totally unable to perform functions with their bodies—even blink an eye or move an eyebrow—but yet are entirely conscious"?

How about being stuck in a hospital bed with your breathing tube for years, able to hear conversations—including those of people wishing you were dead—yet unable to ring a bell or indicate in any way that you're conscious? Wait a minute, you might be saying: Are you resurrecting the debate about Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman in a "persistent vegetative state" who died five years ago after becoming the subject of national debate and congressional intervention?

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Who is neuroscientist Owen and who takes him seriously? Well, the University of Cambridge, where he works, does. The New England Journal of Medicine, which published his article, does. Even The Washington Post does, as its lengthy Feb. 3 article—under a headline, "Tests show brain activity from those in 'vegetative state'"—indicated.

Owen and technicians placed patients inside advanced brain scanners and gave them careful instructions: Imagine you are playing tennis. Imagine you are exploring your home, room by room. The scanner showed no action in the brains of most patients, but for others the scans flashed like those of a healthy conscious person: The minds of these supposed vegetables were alive. One patient could answer detailed yes-and-no questions about his life before entering the hospital.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky is editor-in-chief of the national news magazine World. For additional commentary by Marvin Olasky, visit
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