©Wellcome Library, London

This painting was made as a protest against the premature burial of cholera victims. Death from cholera was particularly harrowing since the disease killed swiftly after violent sickness and diarrhoea which resulted in rapid dehydration and severe muscular cramps. These cramps or spasms often relaxed only after death, causing sudden convulsions which could be mistaken for signs of life. Even before death, the body was often deeply blue (cyanosed) and icy cold to the touch. Breathing was frequently so shallow as to be barely perceptible. In England, fears of premature burial during the 1832 epidemic were heightened by the order for burial (often in quicklime) within 24 hours of death.

Photograph of a painting by Anton Joseph Wiertz (1806-1865) in the Musée Wiertz, Brussels.