Plague victims buried face down to stop them becoming zombies, study concludes

Research has been published suggesting that victims of the plague in the 14th century were buried face down to prevent them becoming zombies.

Several burial sites have been uncovered across Europe showing bodies arranged in this way – specifically in Germany, Switzerland and Austria.

Researchers at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Bern in Switzerland started to look at the practice, initially believing it to be a sign of humankind’s deference to God.

However, once they dug a bit deeper (no pun intended) it turned out that wasn’t the case.

Folklore around the time contained tales of ‘nachzehrer’, loosely translated as gorging on corpses – or zombies, to be more specific. It came to be thought that the Black Death was God’s punishment and that those infected could indeed become zombies.

Burying them face down, as opposed to the traditional way, could stop this from happening as the spirit could not escape upwards back through the ground.

‘There was a theory that someone would become a Nachshehr if they were the first to die in the community during a pandemic,’ said Matthias Toplak, an archaeologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany, who was not involved with the study.

Prior to 1300, ghosts of the dead were considered a friendly presence.

‘This transformation into evil spirits takes place around the year 1300 or 1400,’ Toplak said.

‘It stands to reason that people would blame supernatural spirits and take action to prevent the dead from returning.’

The bubonic plague ravaged Europe during the 14th century, killing one in three.

But the practice of burying the dead face down evidently lasted long after the plague had subsided. The researchers found the practice had been used as recently as the 17th century.

The study was published in the journal PLOS One.

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