"We know of nothing so agonizing upon Earth -- we can dream of nothing half so hideous in the realms of the nethermost hell."
(Edgar Allen Poe, describing premature burial in his short story "The Cask of Amontillado")
The medical doctor looked distinguished and composed. Clad in an expensive suit, sporting wire-framed glasses, immaculate tie only imperceptibly askew. His coiffed mane of white hair matched his carefully manicured hands. He patiently and imperturbably responded to the questions hurled at him by the members of the investigative committee:
"In his youth, the President suffered from a bout of Landry Ascending Paralysis. This may explain his taphephobia." - And forestalling protest, before anyone could chide him cynically for his jargon-laden opening statement, he raised his fleshy white hand:
"Bear with me, lady and gentlemen. I will explain. I used these medical terms only to render the record exact and comprehensive."
He coughed into a monogrammed kerchief and settled back into the squeaking leather chair:
"When in his early teens, the President suffered from flu-like symptoms that persisted for months and then vanished as they had erupted: mysteriously and suddenly. When he was 18, He endured an especially pernicious attack that culminated in a strange paralysis. It started in the extremities: his hands, then arms, and legs. It progressed and ascended to affect the breathing muscles and finally his face froze in a grimace and his vocal cords were made useless by the affliction. He remained speechless and motionless for a few weeks, attached to intravenous drips of gamma-globulin. This was an instance of Landry Ascending Paralysis, probably brought on by contaminated poultry he ate."
The doctor shut his eyes, his brow furrowed in the profound pain of memory:
"During his prolonged incapacitation, visitors mistook him for dead and crossed themselves. At least once, an orderly wrapped him up in a blanket and was about to transport him to the mortuary. Even pathologists were misled by his appearance and muscle tone. It was a very traumatic experience for everyone involved. His family mounted a 24 hours a day watch to prevent his premature internment."
"Were you his primary physician then?"
"Yes, Mrs. Chairwoman." - Replied the doctor awkwardly and massaged his translucent and venous temples.
"Not surprisingly, when he recovered, the patient developed a fear of being buried alive. He had recurring nightmares of waking up inside a coffin whose lid was soldered, being thrust into the blazing orifice of a crematorium oven. He would wake up flailing, his mouth agape in a silent scream and his limbs set-to grotesquely."
"Did he seek professional help for this problem?"
The doctor shrugged:
"The nightmares soon ceased, leaving behind only a trace of claustrophobia, a fear of confined and dark spaces. He was able to function perfectly: to raise a family, perform aptly as a lawyer, and then get himself elected and re-elected, becoming the President we have all known and loved so much."
A murmur of acquiescence, a commiserating susurration engulfed the chamber.
"His terror having subsided, he applied himself to selflessly securing and furthering the welfare of his subjects." - The doctor adjusted his delicate frame in the chair and asked for a glass of water, which was promptly delivered by the bailiff.
"As he grew older and nearer of that which none of us can evade, he again became consumed with fearful fantasies. His favorite reading became some tale by Edgar Allen Poe, in which an unfortunate is immured alive. His bed was immersed in numerous Greek and Roman texts describing warriors and consuls who stood up during their own funerals to protest their imputed mortality. He began obsessing about the possibility of being interred while still breathing. He studied crumbling medical texts from the 18th and 19th centuries which warned against the perils of death-imitating paralyses brought on by cholera, the plague, and typhoid fever. He would wake up sweat-drenched, heart palpitating, and shriek in horror. The sound of his own voice seemed to have soothed him, though."
"How frequent were these episodes?"
The doctor reflected and consulted his notes. At length he answered to audible gasps of incredulity:
"Once or twice a night, every second night, in the last twenty years or so of his life."
The dainty chairwoman held a trembling palm to her lips: "That is awful!" - She exclaimed - "The poor man! How was he able to run this country at the same time?"
"He was not alone." - Remarked another member, a much-respected historian - "George Washington suffered from it, too. He was so terrified that he ordered that his body be kept above ground for three days before an eventual burial, just to make sure that he was, indeed, deceased. Hans Christian Andersen posted "I am not dead" signs next to his hotel bed to ward off eager undertakers. In the 19th century, Germans had Leichenhäuser, or 'waiting mortuaries', where corpses were laid for observation for a few days before they were actually committed to the burial grounds. In Munich, the fingers and toes of unexpectedly stirring bodies were supposed to activate a giant harmonium to which they were attached and cause it to play."
A muffled wave of shock and muted laughter having subsided, the historian expounded further:
"Throughout the 18th century, they had what they called 'security coffins' with flags and bells and whistles that the unfortunate inhabitant could use to call for help. These contraptions capitalized on not entirely unfounded or irrational fears: to this very day, people are mistaken for dead in hospitals and morgues across the land."
At length, as spirits have settled down, the medical doctor continued his testimony:
"The President - for he was already President by that time - disquieted by his reveries ordered a burial chapel to be constructed under the Presidential Palace. It was vast and filled with provisions for three months of survival. These were regularly replaced with fresh produce, water, and medicines. All the doors leading into this crypt as well as separating its compartments were equipped with tinkles and electric buzzers. He had a TV set installed and the latest model laptop with a connection to the Internet."
"What did he hope to achieve by this blatant squandering of public funds?" - Prompted the sole opposition figure on the panel.
The doctor winced distastefully:
"Patience is a virtue, Sir. Rest assured that your curiosity will be satisfied by the time I am finished without undue interruptions."
The other members smirked and clapped and venomously eyed their disrespectful colleague. The doctor went on, mollified by their unanimous and visible support:
"The chapel's roof was fitted with vents, letting fresh air from the outside flow in. Megaphones, telephones, wireless communications devices, and piles of batteries ensured that the occupant of the chapel can alert the outside world to his unfortunate predicament. To compensate for the potential failure of all these gadgets, holes were drilled into the walls with tubes leading to the surface."
"It is there that his body was found?" - Enquired the historian.
"Yes." - Confirmed the doctor - "He was dead a few hours when we found him. Strangely, he hasn't called for help, hasn't touched the food or water, hasn't made an attempt to escape. It seems as though he went there deliberately."
"But, why?" - Cried the anguished Chairwoman, who was rumored to have had a fling with the President in their now remote youth.
"It strikes one as a suicide." - Sneered the oppositioner. The other members stared at him aghast.
"Sometimes the only way to conquer our fears is to confront them head on." - Said the doctor - "I believe that this is what he did. Unable to face the mounting dread, the unrequited nights, the closing realization of his inevitable demise, he preferred to control his demons rather than give in to them. He dressed elegantly, descended to the burial chapel whose every detail he intimately designed and there he ended his life, his honor and dignity intact. Administering his own death was the only way of making sure that he is not buried alive. We must respect his choice and his courage."
"Indeed, we must." - Concluded the Chairwoman and discreetly wiped an errant tear.