Through the mid-twentieth century the tradition of staying with a dead loved one at night was practiced in New Mexico. Family members sat vigil with the body through the night in remorse. But people also believed that the person’s soul remained and that their prayers would help their anima (spirit) reach a higher attainment. The nightly vigil not only had a spiritual connotation but stemmed from an earlier tradition when it was believed that death did not occur at a single moment. Long before the advent of the stethoscope that could detect a heart beat the body was pricked with needles to see if there was any response. As the living sat with the deceased through the night and no detection of life was present the family was assured that the person would not be buried alive.
A Living Nightmare
During the heyday of trade along the Santa Fe Trail in the 1850s a merchant by the name of Antonio Otero experienced the unthinkable. While away in Missouri securing a caravan of goods his wife died and was buried. When Otero returned he was filled with remorse and wanted to see her one last time, so her body was exhumed. When the coffin was opened her clothes were torn and some of her haired had been pulled out in a futile attempt of escaping the underground chamber. Apparently, the woman had gone into a coma and had not died. To the horror of the family and community the wife of Antonio Otero had been buried alive.