In 1844 acclaimed author Edgar Allan Poe wrote a horror story about a man who is so obsessed with being buried alive that he puts elaborate preventive measures in place. The Premature Burial begins with the narrator listing some historical disasters and discussing the shadowy boundary between life and death. He notes that there are instances where an individual may appear to be dead, but is actually still alive. If the person is buried while in this comatose condition, he may later awake to find escape from interment impossible. To make his case, the storyteller outlines several situations where this had actually occurred and expresses his personal fear of being buried alive. The narrator claims to experiencing bouts of catalepsy, during which he falls into a deathlike trance. The trance states last longer as the disease progresses, sometimes encompassing weeks of time.
The writer then confesses to being afraid to fall asleep, and when exhaustion finally wins out, to suffering dreams of a ghastly figure that may represent the embodiment of death. This fear consumes him to the point that he will not leave his house. In addition, he renovates the family vault so that it can be opened from the inside and includes adequate ventilation. He makes a spring-loaded lid for his coffin and attaches a bell to the top of the tomb that can be rung by a long rope from the inside.
Despite all these preparations, the narrator wakes up one day in total darkness, with a weight on his chest, and a wooden cover six inches from his face. He cannot find the rope to ring the bell and fears that he fell into a trance far from home and was truly buried alive. When he is finally able to cry out, those present remind him that he sought shelter from the rain in a small boat while on a hunting trip. He is still in the boat, and had actually slept a full restful night. The narrator realizes that his mind was sabotaging him and it is useless to live in fear. His catalepsy eventually disappears, since it was potentially a projection of his paranoia. As the story concludes, the narrator reminds the readers that although human experience can be dark, it is essential to put away these concerns and live a full life before death comes to call.
In 1992, a man named Reliu Constantin left Romania for Turkey, hoping to find work to support his family back home. He found employment as a cook and was able to return to Romania every few months, although the separations took a toll on his wife and young daughter. When he returned to Romania in 1995 at the age of 40, he discovered that his wife had been unfaithful. By 1999, he had decided to remain in Turkey and never return to his homeland.
For the next 19 years, he worked hard in Turkey; in 2018, things changed. It was then that Turkish officials realized that Constantin’s immigration documents had expired. Since he was apparently living in Turkey without permission, he was deported back to Romania. And upon arrival in the country of his birth, he found out that he was dead. As he told the New York Times:
At the airport in Bucharest, I was surrounding by customs officials. They said, “You’re dead.” I thought they were joking. I was the only one who didn’t know. The people who escorted me off the plane knew, everyone knew except me.
The customs officials were simply stating a known fact. As far as the Romanian government was concerned, this 63-year-old man was legally dead and had been since 2003. When Constantin abandoned Romania in 1999, he left his marriage in limbo. Technically, the couple remained separated and married, and his wife did not have a way to obtain a divorce without Constantin’s participation. As the years melted away, the odds of him returning so that she could end the marriage dwindled. So, his wife went to court seeking a death certificate, stating that he must have died in the August 1999 Turkish earthquake that claimed more than 17,000 lives. The court granted the request for a death certificate in 2016, backdated to 2003 when Constantin’s Romanian passport expired. The former Mrs. Constantin obtained her marriage annulment, remarried and moved to Italy.
With no intention of remaining administratively deceased, the repatriated Constantin filed a motion with the Romanian court to reverse his death and again declare him to be alive. But, the court declined his motion, noting that the window to appeal his death had long passed. Reliu Constantin, standing in the courtroom with a beating heart and functioning brain would remain legally dead, in essence a living ghost. And because he essentially didn’t exist, Constantin was denied a valid ID and could not work in Romania! Thankfully death was only temporary, at least for Constantin. A media firestorm ignited that caused the court to reconsider its decision. In early July 2018, Romanian courts agreed to legally reinstate Constantin’s life.
While there is no defined medical condition in Constantin’s case, the following ICD-10-CM codes may be of interest:
Z63.4 - Disappearance and death of family member
Z02.89 - Encounter for other administrative examinations
Z02.79 - Encounter for issue of other medical certificate
R99 - Ill-defined and unknown cause of mortality
Y92.520 - Airport as the place of occurrence of the external cause
Finally, in the words of Edgar Allan Poe, in The Premature Burial:
The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and the other begins?