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Saved by the bell ... literally

Grave bells alerted people ‘the deceased’ wasn’t

January 14, 2014
By Amanda Nicholson - The Marietta Times ( , The Marietta Times

GRANDVIEW TWP.-For some, a bell ringing in the middle of the night isn't worth a second thought, but for many in the 19th century, a ringing bell signified the difference between life and death.

Cooper Cemetery, nestled near the Monroe County line on Rinard Mills Road, is believed to have been the resting place of a spine-tingling part of America's past: grave bells.

John Miller, president of the Matamoras Historical Society, said there are conflicting meanings behind the common saying of 'saved by the bell': many have heard it being referred to as a boxer in a ring, but it is probably predated by the ringing of a grave bell.

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John Miller, president of the Matamoras Historical Society, shows the approximate area of where a grave bell used to lie in Cooper Cemetery, off of Rinard Mills Road in Grandview Township on Friday. The bells were to be rung by the “deceased” if he or she wasn’t truly dead.

"The bell's purpose was if they (unintentionally) buried you alive, you were supposed to feel around the coffin...for a string," Miller said. "You were supposed to ring that bell."

Miller said usually a pipe led down through the ground and into the coffin. A string ran from the coffin up and outside to the bell. People watched the cemetery just in case a bell was rung, then the person who had been buried alive would rescued.

He said without more modern technology some people with very low pulse rates and rates of breathing could more easily be buried alive. There was also no embalming.

Fact Box


cemetery bells

Bells were commonly used in the 19th century.

A patent was given to Franz Vester, of Newark, N.J., in 1868, for his idea of using a cemetery bell.

A string was fed through a pipe or tube down into the casket and the string was either tied around the deceased's hand or left in close proximity to it so that if they weren't truly dead they could ring a bell and be saved.

People monitored the cemetery to make sure that if a bell rang, the "deceased" could be disinterred.

Source: John Miller, Matamoras Historical Society, and American Artifacts (

"Often people were pronounced dead and they weren't really," Miller said. "You would wake up and you are in your grave. It makes the hair on your neck stand up."

The story of the Cooper Cemetery bell has circulated for years between nearby residents. The evidence of a bell was reported to be a pipe sticking up from the ground next to one of the headstones in the back left corner of the cemetery. While the evidence of this pipe is no longer visible, its story creates a lingering air of fright.

According to Miller, Cooper Cemetery was established in 1821 with its first burial of Nancy Pugh.

"There were no burials until 30 years later in 1851," he said. "All three of them were late in the fall and this is where they got the name Cooper Cemetery."

The next three burials were of Elisha Cooper, 60 at his death, Mary Cooper, 8, and John Cooper, 2.

The most recent burial was of Perley McKnight in November 2012.

Though Cooper Cemetery's bell has long since disappeared without a trace, its legacy continues to live on.

Jim Moore, 61, of Little Hocking, used to live near Cooper Cemetery in his youth. Though he hasn't been around the cemetery for years, he still remembers hearing about and looking for the bell.

"I remember when I was a kid talking with Dad," Moore said. "He told me about it. The grave was kind of sunken in the back left corner of the cemetery... There was definitely something there my dad pointed out... It was like a hole with a pipe type of deal."

Moore said the story of the cemetery's bell has had a lasting effect.

"You know how when you're a kid, it's all kind of spooky," Moore said. "It was always something I remembered. It's kind of surprising and it's just one of those things that's just stuck in my mind."



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