This is from William russ, a 61 year old grave digger in Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield. I’ve read a few reasons why people used to hang on to their dead, one of which was that they could not afford the burial, but this also makes sense:
“I’ve been at the church, official-like, since 1918. I was the legal sexton when I was 13 and I’ve buried damn-near the whole of he old village, every one of them. I remember the first grave I dug. It w for a man named Hayman. I’ve got all my burials down since the day I started, men, women and children.
So far as funerals are concerned, we’ve gone from one extreme to the other. Bodies used to be kept in the house for 12 days. Everyone kept the body at home for as long as they could then; they didn’t care to part with it, you see. Now they can’t get it out quick enough. They didn’t like hurrying about anything when I was young., particularly about death. they were afraid that the corpse might still be alive – that was the real reason for hanging on to it. People have a post-mortem now and it’s all settled in a minute but there’s no doubt that years ago there were a rare lot of folk who got buried alive. When a sick man passed on the doctor was told, but he never came to look at the corpse. He just wrote out the death certificate. People always made a point of leaving instruction in their wills to have a vein cut. Just to be on the safe side.
There was an old man near Framingham, old Michah Hibble, he was laid out for dead 3 times. The last time he was actually in his coffin and waiting for the funeral to begin. When I asked ‘Anyone for a last look before he’s screwed down?’ there was the usual nuisance pushing his way through the mourners and saying, ‘Yes I do!’ Trust somebody to get you fiddling about and making the funeral late,. The bell was going, so you know how late it was. Anyway when the man looked in the coffin he saw that Micah had moved. Well do yo know he recovered!’ and what’s more, he is supposed to have written book about what he saw though I’ve never set eyes on it. He reckoned h saw Heaven and Hell but he wouldn’t say what he saw in Hell; he thought it would be too much for Framlingham. He lived for years after this.
And there was this old lady at Wickham Market and she was in 3 different coffins. They called her Cheat-the-grave at last. All these things happened because people will insist on checking on death with a mirror, which isn’t a mite of good. The only way is to stick a shred of cotton-wool where the lips part and if there’s the least little wind of life it will flutter. I can always tell if a person is dead by looking at the eyes. I never make a mistake about dead eyes. I see at once when the seeing has gone.”