The Great 19th Century Freak-Out About Being Accidentally Buried Alive
Q: What’s everyone’s worst nightmare?
A: Being buried alive.
Anything else you can think of either isn’t quite as bad as being buried alive, or would be made even worse by being buried alive afterwards.
But — and if it’s a particular phobia of yours, this won’t help — it’s happened to people. There are those who have been deliberately buried alive, of course, like in Casino (don’t watch that clip, it’s horrible) or (almost) in Step Brothers or that Ryan Reynolds movie. It’s the accidental ones, though, you really want to worry about, where people think you’re dead and bury you under six feet of earth, only for you to wake up and spend the (very short) rest of your life scratching ineffectually at the lid of your coffin while gasping for breath. Fucking hell.
It’s a terrifying idea. Naturally, Edgar Allan Poe was very into it. The monstrously euphemistic term “premature burial” may have been coined by him in his 1844 story of the same name, and the concept crops up in a lot of his work — The Cask of Amontillado, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Black Cat and more. He perhaps sums up the fear most succinctly in Premature Burial: “Scarcely, in truth, is a graveyard ever encroached upon, for any purpose, to any great extent, that skeletons are not found in postures which suggest the most fearful of suspicions.”
There’s a specific name for the fear: taphophobia. And there was a time when it certainly felt like a frequent enough occurrence that it was a perfectly sensible thing to be worried about. On February 21, 1885, the New York Times printed a story about a man named Jenkins in Buncombe County, North Carolina whose coffin was opened about 10 days after his original burial. His body was going to be transported to a family plot 20 miles away, and it seemed to make sense to check what kind of state it was in and whether the coffin could be transported as it was or whether it would need to be put in a metal casket — the inference is that they needed to check how goopy/sloppy/gross things had got, and, well, it wasn’t great: “The coffin was opened, and to the great astonishment and horror of his relatives, the body was lying face downward, the hair had been pulled from the head in great quantities, and there were scratches of the finger nails on the inside of the lid and sides of the coffin.”
Another case was reported the following year in Ontario involving a young girl with the surname Collins. As the New York Times described it, “The body was exhumed, prior to its removal to another burial place, when the discovery was made that the girl had been buried alive. Her shroud was torn into shreds, her knees were drawn up to her chin, one of her arms was twisted under her head, and her features bore evidence of dreadful torture.”
Jenkins had been ill, cold, motionless and nonresponsive, and as far as anyone could tell was pretty much dead. The details of Collins’ perceived death were only given as “sudden.” But there are conditions that — particularly before the medical advancements of the 20th century — could seem pretty death-like. Comas, catalepsy, stupors, sleeping sickness, even just being really wasted could all be mistaken for having fully shuffled off this mortal coil. There is a hopefully apocryphal tale of a pregnant woman appearing dead and being buried, only for an investigation a few days later to find she had given birth, and both mother and child had subsequently died.
While being inadvertently buried alive was certainly extremely rare, it became a subject of widespread panic. Organizations like the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial (set up, oddly enough, by two prominent 19th-century anti-vaxxers) almost certainly made it seem like a more frequent occurrence than it was, but it did happen. The more people who woke up just as they were about to be buried, or just after, or were found (or, more frequently, rumored) to have been buried prematurely, the more worried people became. Undertakers were encouraged to perform (relatively) extensive checks before burying people — an article in the British Medical Journal described Philadelphia undertakers’ protocols: holding a mirror to the body’s nose and mouth to check for breath and pressing a piece of heated steel against their skin, the thinking being that the extreme pain would cut through any kind of torpor.
There were also options available — largely to the wealthy — to raise the alarm post-burial. Several types of “safety coffins” were built. One variety involved a tube from coffin to above ground level, along with a bell on a string. If you woke up, you yanked the string, the bell rang and you’d be dug up. Another involved a priest listening, sniffing and calling into the pipe every day — if there were noises or no smell of putrefaction, they’d grab the shovel.
Other systems led to a lot of terrifying false alarms. Tying strings to a body’s arms and legs to ring a bell resulted in a lot of bells being rung due to shifts and movement taking place in the natural decaying process. History has no record of the number of graveyard night watchmen who shit their pants as a result of jangling bells.
A different option, briefly popular in Germany in the late 19th century, was a portable cabin that would sit over an open grave for a few days with the body in it — once decomposition began, a trapdoor would open and the body would drop into the grave, then the cabin would be moved and the grave filled.
Whatever the method of prevention, there are no records of any lives actually being saved in this way. Accidental live burials were rare, as were expensive safety coffins, so it never seems to have panned out.
Of course, there’s another way of ensuring someone is dead: Do something to the body that, if it isn’t dead, will kill it. People who were particularly worried about being buried alive began insisting that their arteries be opened up before they were interred, so that if they weren’t entirely dead, they’d die. Both fairytale A-lister Hans Christian Andersen and dynamite pioneer turned peace prize big-dog Alfred Nobel are said to have gone for this option.
Then there was cremation. Being buried prematurely potentially leads to hours of hellish agony as you slowly die; being cremated prematurely does no such thing. Nobody’s waking up to find that they’ve been cremated. Cremation’s rise in popularity following the Industrial Revolution definitely played a part in reducing the likelihood of live burials, as did general improvements in medicine. Certification of a death is now a much more ordered, multipart process than it was previously (“Yeah, this one’s dead” seems to have once sufficed). Additionally, between modern embalming processes, autopsies, organ donation and mortuaries, it’s all vastly less likely to happen.
Nope, these days you’re more likely to wake up cold and alone in a mortuary drawer, wrestling your way out of a body bag to find yourself nude and terrified, locked in and surrounded by corpses. At the very least, it happened in Japan in 2000, Colombia in 2010 and Mississippi in 2014.
It probably won’t happen to you though. Sleep tight!