A History of Being Buried Alive

History of Being Buried Alive

It’s a scene out of a horror movie; waking up inside a coffin-shaped box, knowing that there are six feet of dirt on top of you and that your air is running out. Being buried alive seems like a silly fear in the age of modern medicine, but before the medical advancements that allow us to know for sure if someone is dead, it was a legitimate possibility that you could end up six feet under while still breathing. This fear has followed us into the modern-day, occupying nightmares and horror films alike.

Before the 19th century, medicine was not a respected field, and thus scientific advancements were lacking. On top of that, dissection of human bodies was illegal for much of history, limiting our understanding of our inner workings to theory and guessing games. All of these factors allowed for accidental live burials; people who fell into comas or whose heart rates slowed but did not stop were in danger of being falsely pronounced dead and waking up in a coffin. A social reformer named William Tebb began compiling reports of live burials in the 1890s, and eventually collected 149 stories of live burial, 219 of near misses, and 10 stories of live dissections on autopsy tables. So at the time, there was definitely a non-zero chance of this horrible thing happening to you or someone you loved. 

Most of the time, evidence of these instances were found after victims had already succumbed for real, asphyxiating inside their coffins. Bodies would be found turned over, with gouges in the tops and sides of their containers and their fingernails worn to the quicks. However, the actual number of live burial cases is hard to pin down, because it’s believed that many were not cases of mistaken death, but mistaken signs of life. Corpses whose coffins were dropped or rifled by grave robbers were often mistaken as accidental live burials when the evidence really came from other activity.

Horrifyingly, being buried alive was not always an accident. Multiple civilizations used vivisepulture (live burial) as capital punishment for various crimes. The method seems to have been used more often on female criminals, though the numbers are uncertain. 

The Ancient Romans punished Vestal Virgins who broke their celibacy vows by sealing them in small caves, effectively putting them into their tombs. The same was done for those who raped Vestal Virgins. In Germany in the Middle Ages, mothers who murdered their children were buried alive. If burying someone alive wasn’t a horrible enough punishment, authorities in medieval Italy would bury murderers headfirst if they were found to show no remorse for their crimes. And in Denmark in the 13th century, female thieves were executed via live burial. Male thieves were beheaded instead, though the reason for this division is unclear. 

Artist's rendering of unrepentant murderers being buried alive in Medieval Italy.

 

Live burials haven’t gone away, either. Mass live burials remain strikingly, horrifyingly common in war zones; Japanese soldiers at Nanking did it, Nazis did it in Belarus and Ukraine, and ISIS extremists buried women and children alive in Iraq in 2014. 

In the 19th century, cholera epidemics were sweeping the globe, and epidemics of premature burial followed close behind. Cholera is a waterborne pathogen spread via the fecal-oral route, but little was known about the disease at the time. Instead, many believed that one could contract cholera via contact with the dead, much like the bubonic plague. Many areas turned to rapid burial orders to try and stop the spread.

 

Severe hydration caused by a cholera infection can cause victims to appear waxy and cold to the touch, giving the impression that they are dead. Between these two factors, there were instances where cholera victims were interred too soon. These cases likely fed into the rampant fear of premature burial that arose at the time. 

Fear of being buried alive hit its peak in the 1890s. Partially, it was because someone had given the fear a name; Italian psychiatrist Enrico Morselli called it taphephobia. As the fear spread, people started coming up with all sorts of ways to prevent themselves from ending up in this horrifying situation. 

The most common contraption was something called a “safety coffin” - coffins fitted with various devices to allow a person who had been buried prematurely to survive the ordeal and call for help. Coffins were fitted with bells that a person could ring, ways to let air into a coffin, escape routes such as ladders and tunnels, and even viewing windows so that those above could watch over their dead loved ones to make sure that they were really dead. Safety coffins can be purchased to this day; some have been patented as recently as 2014 and feature panic buttons that work much like the original bell idea. 

A diagram of a safety coffin that was patented in 1868.

Another common prevention tactic was waiting to inter corpses until they’d begun to decay, thereby proving that they were well and truly dead. George Washington stated in his will that he wanted his family to wait two days after his death before burying him. In France, mort houses were constructed; partially, these were places to store corpses in the winter when the ground was too frozen to dig graves, but they were also places where corpses could decay for a while before going into the ground. Possibly the most morbid career of the 19th century was an attendant to one of these places; you would have to sit amongst the dead, watching for signs of life.

An old "mort house" that still stands to this day.

The Victorian era’s widespread terror of being buried alive was reflected in the literature of the time; premature burial is included as a theme in a wide range of Gothic works. Notably, Edgar Allan Poe wrote three short stories centering on the phenomenon; The Fall of the House of Usher (1839), The Premature Burial (1844),  and The Cask of Amontillado (1846). These stories have all been made into multiple films throughout the years. In more recent fiction, Stephen King includes the concept in Misery (1987) - Paul Sheldon includes it as a plot point in the book that he writes while in captivity. Jeffery Deaver uses premature burial as the modus operandi of his twisted serial killer in The Bone Collector (1997). 

 

In the realm of TV and film, live burial remains a subject for horror films and crime dramas. The season finale of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation in Season 5 includes one of the characters being held hostage in a specialized coffin buried underground. And the plot of the 2010 horror film Buried is that an American contractor wakes up inside a coffin with nothing but his cell phone.

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