Imagine waking up inside of a suffocating and small, sealed box. It’s too dark to see and eerily quiet. The more you panic, the less air you have and the weight of the earth makes it impossible for you to escape. On top of it all, no one is around to hear you scream. All you can do is lay back in terror and wait for the inevitable. For many people suffering from taphophobia, this is actually one of their worst nightmares. Being buried alive is a fate worse than death, and in a time before medical science developed sophisticated methods for testing if someone was actually dead, premature burial was a common occurrence.
Here are a few articles that reported instances where someone was buried alive:
The Undertakers’ and Funeral Directors’ Journal, July 22, 1890.
“A horrible story comes from Majola, Mantua. The body of a woman, named Lavrinia Merli, a peasant, who was supposed to have died from hysterics, was placed in a vault on Thursday, July 3. On Saturday evening it was found that the woman had regained consciousness, torn her grave-clothes in her struggles, had turned completely over in the coffin, and had given birth to a seven-months’-old child. Both mother and child were dead when the coffin was opened for the last time previous to interment”(Tebb 58).
The Progressive Thinker, of November 14, 1891.
“Farmer George Hefdecker, who lived at Erie, Pa., died very suddenly two weeks ago, of what is supposed to have been heart failure. The body was buried temporarily four days later in a neighbour’s lot in the Erie cemetery pending the purchase of one by his family. The transfer was made in a few days, and when the casket was opened at the request of his family, a horrifying spectacle was presented. The body had turned round, and the face and interior of the casket bore the traces of a terrible struggle with death in its most awful shape. The distorted and blood-covered features bore evidence of the agony endured. The clothing about the head and neck had been torn into shreds, as was likewise the lining of the coffin. Bloody marks of finger nails on the face, throat, and neck, told of the awful despair of the doomed man, who tore his own flesh in his terrible anguish. Several fingers had been entirely bitten off, and the hands torn with the teeth until they scarcely resembled those of a human being” (Tebb 59).
Why Did This Happen?
Premature burial has happened throughout history for a variety of reasons, some of which involve religion, punishment and war, and misdiagnosis. By the 18th and 19th centuries, anxiety about being buried alive hit a peak (Salsa). People were exposed to horrifying articles detailing stories of individuals being buried alive, very of few of which survived to tell the tale. In 1844, Edgar Allan Poe’s, The Premature Burial, was published, The Story spoke of a man whose fear of waking up after being buried consumed his every thought (Salsa). In a time before technology took uncertainty out of the equation, people were at the mercy of educated guesswork. Doctors and quack impersonators alike depended on rudimentary methods that relied solely on observable phenomenon that comatose states could mimic (“Being Buried…”).
Special Death Tests:
Experts began researching reliable ways to test if an individual has in-fact kicked the bucket. Here are a few of the most interesting examples of what they came up with:
Doctors and family members who were unsure whether or not a person was dead would expose the corpse to pain tests to see if they could be jolted awake. Some of the most common methods involved holding a finger over an open flame, pouring extremely hot water on the skin, and even chopping off a finger or toe. I can’t decide if the poor individual would feel relief or not upon that wake-up call.
Invented by Luigi Galvani, these tests seem to come right from the plot of Frankenstein. Galvani noticed that the body of a frog twitched when exposed to electrical impulses. Going further with this idea, it was believed that you could prove whether or not a person was alive depending on if their muscles reacted when electricity was ran into the body. This method of death confirmation was not popular or accurate and it tended to badly burn the skin where the electricity was applied (“Being Buried”).
Decomposition is always a pretty clear sign that death has occurred. The human body starts to break down just 4 minutes after death! As the process continues, the signs of deterioration become obvious. You know, unpleasant things like gas build-up, decomposition of exterior flesh, and the smell of rot. Some morgues were known to set bodies out until the person began to putrefy. This ensured that a person was actually dead before being laid to rest (“Being Buried”).
Saved by the Bell:
As a result of clever engineering and an unrelenting obsessive fear, the 19th century saw the development of many clever inventions that were designed to save people’s lives. Most of these safety coffins were capable of helping a non-corpse breathe, escape, and alert people of their presence (Tarazano). Sometimes windows were even installed on top of tombs so that family members could check on their deceased loved ones. These windows were constructed right over the person’s face and gave the viewer a clear glimpse view of the body (Jackson). The late 1800s saw the rise in popularity of the coffin bell. Strings could be tied to the corpse’s fingers and toes. Essentially, if a person woke up from their eternal slumber, they would frantically ring the bell which would alert visitors or the cemetery watchmen (“Being Buried”). One major downside to this idea was the fact that swelling corpses oftentimes sent out false alerts.
In 1896, a man named William Tebb founded the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial (Salsa). In his writings, he outlined at least 219 cases of reported premature burial (Tebb). Thank goodness that we rarely hear about people being buried alive today, but it still does occur from time to time. Regardless of the decline in frequency, some people are still haunted by the idea of waking up inside their own tomb. Rightfully so.
I sincerely hope that all of my readers have a safe Halloween this year.
If that didn’t make you grateful for modern medicine, then I don’t know what will!
Until next time,
- “Being Buried Alive Was So Common in the Victorian Era That Doctors Used These 10 Methods to Prevent It.” History Collection. Accessed 26 October, 2020. https://historycollection.com/buried-alive-common-victorian-era-doctors-used-10-methods-prevent/.
- Jackson, Ashawnta. “History’s best Strategies for Avoiding Being Buried alive.” Atlas obscura. 23 October, 2018. Accessed 26 October, 2020. Atlasobscura.com/articles/users-guide-to-definitive-death.
- Marshall, Kelli. “4 people Who were Buried Alive (And How They Got Out).” Mental Floss. 15 February, 2014. Accessed 26 October, 2020. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/54818/4-people-who-were-buried-alive-and-how-they-got-out.
- Salsa, Reuben. “The Widespread Fear of Being Buried Alive.” Lessons from History: Medium. 11 September, 2020. Accessed 26 October, 2020. Medium.com/lessons-from-history/the-widespread-fear-of-being-buried-alive-6144c0d672af.
- Tarazano, Lawrence. “People Feared being Buried Alive so much they invented These Special Safety Coffins.” Smithsonian Magazine. 26 October, 2018. Accessed 26 October, 2020. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/sponsored/people-feared-being-buried-alive-so-much-they-invented-these-special-safety-coffins-180970627/.
- Tebb, William and Col. Edward Perry Vollum. Premature Burian and How it May be Prevented. Swan Sonnenschein & Co: London, 1896, (Project Gutenburg). Accessed 26 October, 2020. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/50460.