Graveyard Shift. Sand behind your eyes and skin so clammy!

A month ago I entered into a new industry which is growing rapidly; and the company I am working for has a culture that is unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere else.  I will neither tell you at this time what company I am employed by, nor will I disclose any specifics regarding what we do there.  I will say that what this small(ish) yet growing company is making impacts the medical, and scientific communities, brings brilliance to so many looking for entertainment, and has products reaching the other side of this rock we call Earth.  That’s right China is finally buying some really expensive stuff from us.  It’s about time right!! I know!!!!  What we are making is also going out of this world…literally! (think Mars and Pluto).  But that’s not what this post is about….sorry, but I’d rather talk about weird graveyard stuff.

For the last month I have been working overnights, yep the “graveyard shift”.  That term fascinates me  because I’ve worked overnights for quite a few years at Kodak, and now I am once again. It has never really felt like the graveyard to me primarily because I wasn’t in one.  Being in a state of little sleep, and being in a graveyard have significantly different feelings to me as I have spent quite a bit of time in both.  But there is a strangeness in the night at times when I go outside for breaks.  There is a stillness and a quality to the air that definitely can lend a subtle and unique feeling to it which I actually find very tranquil and serene.  It’s a time when the rest of the world is asleep even the birds.  Okay not all of the birds there is one particular bird, the Killdeer, that loves to fly about at night and gobble up the little bugs.  I like those birds. I like the noise they make.  They make me think of my wife every time I hear them.   I can’t describe the sensory perceptions of a 0300hrs lunch break out on the picnic table, or taking a step outside for a 15min at 0530hrs just before the sun starts to come up.  There is a color and smell and feel to the air that changes when the world starts waking up.  Maybe it’s graveyardy!  But I think the term doesn’t come from that but from the people who spent their night shifts in the graveyards a long time ago.

So a little history: “graveyard shift is an evocative term for the night shift between about midnight and eight in the morning, when – no matter how often you’ve worked it – your skin is clammy, there’s sand behind your eyeballs, and the world is creepily silent, like the graveyard.”  The phrase dates only from the early years of the twentieth century.  I love that sentiment but my skin isn’t ever clammy and I don’t usually feel like I have sand behind my eye balls.  That statement actually just gives me the chilly willies.

Another reason for the term “graveyard shift” is  previous to the 20th century the medical community didn’t know about things like comas, cholera and in Victorian times there was this weird intense fear of being buried alive.   Apparently they must have slept like the dead if they didn’t wake up before the dirt hit the lid.  This fear peaked during the cholera epidemics.  Doctors of the time, as well as Edgar Allen Poe’s  The Premature Burial, did very little to ease this fear and instead actually heightened it.  Because enough people were believed to have been buried alive for whichever cause, it became the duty of a night watchman, or a Priest to attend the graves of the recently buried, yet perhaps not dead, that they may be saved by the bell.  ( the term saved by the bell actually comes from boxing not premature burials).

Antoine Wiertz's The Premature Burial
Antoine Wiertz’s The Premature Burial

This fear spurred many ideas and innovative products like safety coffins and portable death chambers.  Yeah I didn’t know what a portable death chamber was either, and that is what google is for!!  Basically a portable death chamber was a large box or room built over the empty grave with a false floor and a window for the night watch to look in.  It also had a bell that could be rung from inside but in this instance the questionably deceased would be locked into the room and would be viewed frequently to either determine that there was a very upset cranky person inside who just needed his morning coffee, or if indeed there was decomposition and putrefaction beginning.  That indeed would be clear evidence of death!  If the ladder had begun, the night watch could then slide the false floor out and the body would fall into the grave below, the floor would then be slid back in so they could move the “portable” death chamber to the next empty grave and complete the interment process. That would be the shovels and the dirt part.

Early and crude rendering of a safety coffin with bell alert

Safety coffins had quite the variety of means of escape.  Most of which relied on a tube run through the earth from the coffin to the surface, in part would allow a small amount of air to pass into the coffin in case of the need of breathing, as well as be used to determine if the poor sot in the ground was alive or not.  Yes the night watch or the priest could then periodically take a whiff through the tube, again to determine if putrefaction had begun, or perhaps listen for intense scratching of nails in wood and screaming.  Some had locks on the inside and a key would be placed in the pocket of the possibly deceased.   I wonder if it was a PSA during that period of time: Perhaps you casually wake up and find yourself in a coffin, you should first check you pocket, before going immediately to panic.  In most cases a bell was also used which was tied to the “victims” fingers, feet and head so any movement would hopefully alert the night watch.  Unfortunately this method also caused more false alarms than anything (we hope), as through the decomposition process the body would swell from gasses, then shift and shrink again causing movement.  Another method put a larger tube directly over the face of the interred with a window in the coffin for visual inspections.  In most cases in which there was a bell incorporated the Nightwatch would have in his possession a bellows and a secondary tube which he would insert into the primary tube and then pump air into the coffin with the bellows until it could be dug up.  Can you imagine pumping air all night for nothing!  How many nightwatch men had dug up enough corpses from false alarms to just scoff and pretend they didn’t hear the next one?

What? I didn’t hear anything, did you hear anything? No that was not a bell!

Most of these methods had terrible failures and few successes but were widely used nonetheless.  Around 1897 a certain Russian  Count devised his own safety coffin in which a flag was raised,; a bell rung; and an air tube would immediately open once a “motion sensor” was tripped inside the coffin from the dearly departed that was interred.   However it was deemed unsuitable and abandoned shortly after his assistant volunteered for a demonstration in which all of the signalling systems failed.  Fortunately the breathing tube did open and he was disinterred successfully.  But the trepidation of this premature burial still exists.  In 1995 a modern coffin maker invented a new safety coffin which included an emergency alarm, intercom, flashlight, breathing apparatus, and a heart rate monitor.

Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented:  With Special Referance Section to Trance, Catalepsy and other forms of Suspended Animation
Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented: With Special Reference Section to Trance, Catalepsy and other forms of Suspended Animation: 1905: Tebb & Vollum: London

As we all know the rebirth of the Zombie phenom lends to still furthering the fear of returning from the grave, in which if that is the case no bell is needed and the nightwatch is breakfast.  I wonder what these Graveyard shift workers did to pass the time?

They were the night shift workers, what millions of people now do everyday.  These are the same people that are most often overlooked, and frequently forgotten about, but they keep product moving, sales coming in, programs written, and emergencies attended when the rest of the world is asleep.  They are firemen, police, nurses, gas station attendants, …opticians ehhem, global sales teams, people who keep things running when the business day ends.  There is still work that needs to be done after it gets dark.  Somebody still needs to listen for the bell.  Somebody still has to keep the machine running.  Maybe that machine is a polisher, or maybe it’s life support.  So the next chance you get thank a night shift worker. No matter what they do, it’s not an easy task. The graveyard shift is something few can do, or will do.  Give them a few kind words for keeping it running while you were asleep.  Believe me, they will carry weight.

So there you have it, more information than you every wanted to know about the graveyard watch’s duties, and apparently how the night shift adopted it’s name.  You know nothing more about what I’m doing, but at least you can be satisfied that I’m not doing it in a graveyard and we now have the means to ensure you are 100% dead before putting you in the ground.  What happens after that is really up to Max Brooks and George Romero.  LONG LIVE THE ZOMBIE FLICKS!!

Sleep well friends, but don’t sleep to well if you know what I mean!

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