Throughout time, humankind has feared dying and cadavers, and live burial is said to be one of the most widespread of human fears. The medical term for the irrational fear of being buried alive is “taphephobia”.
Many people repeat tales that they’ve heard about individuals who were buried alive, but none are able to cite specific examples. Pre-mature burial is a common theme in the folklore of the history of funeral service. However, what do we know about the subject and the reaction to it?
Humans may be buried alive accidentally or intentionally. Accidental burial may result from a disaster such as a landslide or the collapse of a building or cave; the victim may also be buried by others in the mistaken that he has died.
A person trapped with air to breathe can thus last a considerable time, and burial has been used as a very cruel method of execution (as in case of Vestal Virgins who violated the oath of celibacy), lasting sufficiently long for the victim to comprehend and imagine every stage of what is happening (being trapped in total darkness with very limited or no movement) and to experience great psychological and physical torment including panic and extreme claustrophobia.
At least one report of accidental burial dates from the thirteenth century. Revivals have been triggered by dropped coffins, grave robbers, embalming, and attempted dissections. In the fourteenth through nineteenth centuries, a popular tale about premature burial in European folklore was the “Lady with the Ring”. In the story, a woman who was prematurely buried awakens to frighten a grave robber who is attempting to cut a ring off her finger. Patients in the 1890s have been documented as accidentally being bagged, trapped in a steel box, or sent to the morgue. “Safety coffins” have been devised to prevent premature burial.
In the late nineteenth century, undertakers developed a number of techniques for verifying the absence of life prior to burial or embalming. However, in late eighteenth century Germany, physicians believed that putrefaction was the only sure sign. As a result, the Leichenhaus (Hospital for the Dead) was created where a body would lie for two or three days. Not unique to the German states, the Schijndodenhuis (House for the Apparently Dead) developed in The Netherlands, and temples funéraires (funeral temples or waiting mortuaries) were built in Paris. Arguing that it was unhealthy for a cadaver to lie in the home, the body was removed to one of these facilities where it would be allowed to decompose. Despite a profusion of fresh flowers, one can only imagine the unpleasant environment where rows of “beds” held cadavers in large rooms. A simple wire connected the deceased to a central bell or alarm system that would summon help. A watchman was present to offer aid to those who were revived. He also welcomed guests and foreign tourists, including Mark Twain. With improvements in diagnosis that came during the late nineteenth century, these facilities were closed without reporting a single case of rescue. The buildings were converted to convents and schools, but the last of the Leichenhausen stood in Germany as late as 1959. This preventive measure came to the United States in a limited way.
Franz Vester of Newark, New Jersey, received the first U. S. Patent on August 25, 1868, for his “Improved Burial Case,” which ensured that if the occupant had been buried prematurely, he or she would be able to summon help and escape. Vester’s device was similar to the Leichenhaus concept; however, the deceased was buried but connected to a bell on the surface of the grave. As an added precaution, Vester also provided a folding ladder for escape. In all, sixteen U. S. Patents were issued prior to 1901 to various men with Germanic surnames, which causes one to ask whether the fear of premature burial was stronger in that culture as a result of folk tales regarding Death. Each invention includes a bell or flag mounted on the surface connected to the coffin or casket via a hollow tube. Once death was certain, the device could be removed. It is doubtful that any of these devices were placed in production.
Even though popular myth suggests that a burst coffin, scratches on the interior lid, or discovery that the body is out of position are accepted as certain signs of premature burial and struggle, one must argue that these are more likely the result of the decomposition process. Only additional research or the discovery of a historic artifact will lay this bit of funeral folklore to rest.
Photos by: Yaryshev Evgeny
An Urban Legend: As told by Emily…
”My mother swears this is true:
My great-great grandmother, ill for quite some time, finally passed away after lying in a coma for several days. My great-great grandfather was devastated beyond belief, as she was his one true love and they had been married over 50 years. They were married so long it seemed as if they knew each other’s innermost thoughts.
After the doctor pronounced her dead, my great-great grandfather insisted that she was not. They had to literally pry him away from his wife’s body so they could ready her for burial.
Now, back in those days they had backyard burial plots and did not drain the body of its fluids. They simply prepared a proper coffin and committed the body (in its coffin) to its permanent resting place. Throughout this process, my great-great grandfather protested so fiercely that he had to be sedated and put to bed. His wife was buried and that was that.
That night he woke to a horrific vision of his wife hysterically trying to scratch her way out of the coffin. He phoned the doctor immediately and begged to have his wife’s body exhumed. The doctor refused, but my great-great grandfather had this nightmare every night for a week, each time frantically begging to have his wife removed from the grave.
Finally the doctor gave in and, together with local authorities, exhumed the body. The coffin was pried open and to everyone’s horror and amazement, my great-great grandmother’s nails were bent back and there were obvious scratches on the inside of the coffin.”
A real-life case of premature burial, as reported in the New York Times on January 18, 1886:
WOODSTOCK, Ontario: Recently a girl named Collins died here, as it was supposed, very suddenly. A day or two ago 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.
On rare occasions some people actually voluntarily arranged to be buried alive, reportedly as a demonstration of their controversial ability to survive such an event. In one story taking place around 1840, Sadhu Haridas, an Indian fakir, is said to have been buried in the presence of a British military officer and under the supervision of the local maharajah, by being placed in a sealed bag in a wooden box in a vault. The vault was then interred, earth was flattened over the site, and crops were sown over the place for a very long time. The whole location was guarded day and night to prevent fraud, and the site was dug up twice in a ten-month period to verify the burial, before the fakir was finally dug out and slowly revived in the presence of another officer. The fakir said that his only fear during his “wonderful sleep” was to be eaten by underground worms. According to current medical science, it is not possible for a human to survive for a period of ten months without food, water, and air. However, according to other sources the entire burial was 40 days long, which makes the feat more plausible. The Indian government has since made the act of voluntarily being buried alive illegal due to the unintended deaths of individuals attempting to recreate this feat.
During his career, Hungarian-American magician and escapologist Harry Houdini performed two variations on a “Buried Alive” stunt/escape. The first was near Santa Ana, California in 1917, and it almost cost Houdini his life. Houdini was buried, without a casket, in a pit of earth six feet deep. He became exhausted and panicky trying to dig his way to the surface and called for help. When his hand finally broke the surface, he fell unconscious and had to be pulled from the grave by his assistants. Houdini wrote in his diary that the escape was “very dangerous” and that “the weight of the earth is killing.”
Houdini’s second variation on Buried Alive was an endurance test designed to expose a mystical Egyptian performer who claimed to use supernatural powers to remain in a sealed casket for an hour. Houdini bettered that claim on August 5, 1926, by remaining in a sealed casket submerged in the swimming pool of New York’s Hotel Shelton for one hour and a half. Houdini claimed he did not use any trickery or supernatural powers to accomplish this feat, just controlled breathing.