When Les Innocents cemetery was relocated from the center of Paris, France to the suburbs a number of skeletons were found face down in their caskets. This convinced many people – including many doctors – that premature burial had been common. While certainly never “very common,” confirmed cases of people having been buried alive go far back in history.
Being buried prematurely is one of the staples of Halloween and horror fiction. The truth is, it’s not always fiction. There are plenty of real historic accounts of those who have been buried alive.The real possibility of being declared dead and then buried was more in the past when a doctor did not need to be present to declare someone had died. They needed only to be informed that someone had died and then they would sign the death certificate.
The medical term for the fear of being buried alive is taphephobia. It is said that this is one of the most common phobias. The word taphephobia comes from the Greek words “taphos” meaning “grave” and “phobos” meaning “fear.”
Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story called “Premature Burial” which begins with a discussion of the suffering that would occur if one were buried alive. In this era before embalming, burials needed to happen quickly. As Poe comments in the story, “The boundaries which divide life and death are shadowy and vague.”
In response to the real possibility of being buried alive, there have been many designs patented of “Safety Coffins.” These were coffins which would allow air in and communication with the outside world were someone to awake in a coffin. There were cords attached to bells so the person on awaking could alert the outside world. There were coffins designed to be locked in a way that someone inside the coffin could thwart rather than having the coffin nailed shut.
The possibility of being buried alive is much less today. Embalming and autopsy guarantee that a corpse is dead before burial or cremation. Doctors are now more likely to define death as “brain death” – a time when electrical activity in a brain ceases. The question of whether or not a person is really dead does not always arise and brain scans are not required. The incidence of Lazarus syndrome wherein a person is declared dead and later awakes is rare, but not unheard of.
Being buried alive has not always been accidental. According to Catholic tradition, St Castulus was executed by being buried in a sand pit. Saint Vitalis of Milan was first racked and then buried alive with stones piled on his head. It is rumored that Thomas a Kempis who wrote The Imitation of Christ was not canonized because when his body was disinterred, there were splinters under the fingernails. The Church authorities said that one aspiring to be a saint who found himself buried alive would not fight death.
In ancient Rome, a Vestal Virgin convicted of violating her vow of celibacy would be buried alive by being sealed in a cave with a small amount of bread and water. Cases of vestal unchastity were rare. The Vestal Tuccia was accused of being unchaste, but was spared her punishment when proved her virtue by carrying water in a sieve.
Some people have willingly submitted to being buried alive. There have been Indian fakirs who did so. Most famous of those who willingly went through being buried alive is Harry Houdini. He actually performed the feat twice. The first time was in 1917 near Santa Ana, California. Houdini allowed himself to be buried, without a casket, in a six foot deep grave site. While trying to dig to the surface, he became exhausted and panicked; he called for help. His assistants eventually had to pull him from the grave when his hand emerged above the surface.
In 1926 Houdini allowed himself to be buried alive again. This time, it was part of his exposure of spiritualists and mystics who claimed to have supernatural powers. This one was not an escape, but an endurance test. An Egyptian mystic had claimed that through supernatural powers he could remain in a sealed casket for an hour. On August 5, 1926, Houdini remained in a sealed casket at the bottom of the swimming pool of Hotel Shelton in New York. He remained there for an hour and a half using nothing more than controlled breathing.
Among documented cases of accidental premature burial are at least 149 cases during the 17th century when victims of the plague sometimes collapsed seemingly dead. Some buried alive in this time were not accidental, but were pragmatic choices. There are tales from this period of people hearing crying from piles of dead bodies waiting to be placed into mass graves. People’s fear of the disease kept them from pulling those still alive from the piles. Further, the sheer volume of work needed in burying so many people was overwhelming. Taking time to pull the living (and likely near dead anyway) would have slowed down the work excessively.
The grammarian and meta-physician, Johannes Duns Scotus died in Cologne, Germany in 1308. When the vault his corpse resided in was later opened his body was found lying outside the coffin.
Virginia Macdonald who in 1851 lived with her father in New York City. She became ill, died, and was buried. Well, they thought she had died. Following the burial, Virginia’s mother announced she believed her daughter had not been dead when she was buried. Finally, the family relented to the mother’s wishes and had the body disinterred. They discovered Virginia’s body lying on its side. Her hands badly bitten, and every indication of a premature burial.
Mrs. Blunden was buried in a family vault situated beneath a school. The day following her burial, one of the boys at the school told the headmaster about noises he heard coming from beneath the floor. The casket was opened just in time for two witnesses to see the woman take her last breath. Attempts to resuscitate were unsuccessful. In her attempts to escape, she had bitten the nails off her fingers. This biting at ones fingers, tearing of ones face or pulling out clumps of hair when buried alive seem to be common in the literature.
In 1901 a pregnant woman named who appeared to be suffering from yellow fever was on a boat from South Africa. She was sent to a hospital for those affected with contagious diseases where she became worse and appeared to have died. Despite the fact that a nurse said she noticed the body was not cold and there was “a tremulousness of the muscles of the abdomen” she was buried. When the woman’s father heard the nurse’s report, he had his daughter exhumed. In the coffin was found the baby that had been born and died with its mother. An autopsy later showed that she had never had yellow fever.
Hollywood keeps alive the fear of being buried alive. In movies like Kill Bill Vol 2, The Vanishing, Guarding Tess, or the latest offering Buried starring Ryan Reynolds. Sometimes we get just a glimpse of what the situation might be. Sometimes being buried alive seems to be the whole story.
Of course, if being buried alive doesn’t creep you out enough, there are documented cases of doctors beginning and autopsy and finding someone’s heart was beating. That’s another scary story and a whole different phobia.
Wikins, Robert. A History of Mans Obsession and Fears, Barnes & Noble, 1996
Roach, Mary Wikins, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, W. W. Norton & Company, 2004
Bondenson, Jan, Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear, W. W. Norton & Company, 2002
Saints and Angels – Catholic Online – http://www.catholic.org/saints/