Being buried alive is a primal fear that has plagued humans throughout history and there’s even a name for it – taphophobia. As much as we may not want to dwell on it, death comes to us all in the end. So imagine what might happen if, after you die and are buried, you then wake up and find yourself not surrounded by your loved ones for your last precious moments but rather alone, in a small box, under 6 feet of earth. Sorry to break it to you but you’ve been buried alive and will probably spend the last bit of oxygen you have screaming fruitlessly for help. But surely this hasn’t happened, has it? Aren’t there systems in place for this sort of thing? Yes, nowadays there are, but go back a couple of hundred years and it seems like this nightmare occurrence may have been happening more than we realised.
How Could it Happen?
A quotation from Roman author and philosopher Pliny the Elder states: “Such is the condition of humanity, and so uncertain is men’s judgment, that they cannot determine even death itself.”
And so it seems. There are a couple of different “buried alive” scenarios. The first is that, while the person is technically still alive, they are for the most part at death’s door and after being rescued only survive for a very short period before finally dying for real. The other situation is someone being in a deep coma or similar state, being thought to be dead by accident and, once the situation has been realised and rectified, they go on to live out the rest of their lives. But that’s only when it’s been realised that a mistake has been made. There have, unfortunately, been incidences where the buried person is only found to have been buried alive long after their actual, permanent death. It’s safe to say that nowadays, this happens far less than it did in the past as we’re aware of conditions like comas and have monitors that can detect even the faintest of heart and brain signals but that’s not to say that it doesn’t still happen every once in a while.
In all honesty, we can’t possibly know how many times people have accidentally been buried alive as once they’re all tucked away, that’s usually it and there’s no reason to check up on them ever again. Whether they would have lasted a few minutes or many years longer, we’ll never know. So with that cheery thought in mind, let’s go through some actual examples of premature interment.
The Past: The Worst
Knowing what we do now about the human body, medicine and science, it stands to reason that as soon as humans started burying their dead, some would have gone in a bit too soon. Add in high death-count events such as plagues, famines and war and it’s almost inevitable that more than a few people met their ends sometime after they were actually pronounced dead and buried under the ground.
While there are early cases of voluntary self-burial due to religious reasons, one of the earliest tales of accidental premature burial comes courtesy of medieval monk and author, Thomas à Kempis. After his death in 1471, he was said to be on his way to a sainthood but an exhumation of his grave soon put paid to that. When his coffin was opened, there were found to be scratch marks on the underside of the lid and Thomas had splinters of wood stuck under his fingernails. A grisly end, to be sure, but if being buried alive wasn’t bad enough, the Church was apparently so aggrieved that the monk had struggled against his untimely death and didn’t seem to want to meet God that they decided this made him an unfit candidate to be a saint after all.
In July 1674, Alice Blunden of Basingstoke, England, became ill and was given poppy water or tea to make her feel better. It sent her into a deep coma-like state and after no pulse was found, she was pronounced dead and was promptly buried in the local graveyard. After neighbourhood children reported hearing screams coming from her grave and probably never slept again, she was exhumed and found to be battered and bruised as though she had tried to fight her way out of the coffin. As all signs of life were absent again, she was reinterred until the coroner could check on her the next day. When the coffin was opened again, her face was covered in blood and her burial shroud was torn. It seems that she had been buried alive not just once, but twice. There’s even a plaque by the Basingstoke Historical Society telling the public of this event, confirming the date, the fact that she was buried alive and that the town had been fined by parliament for letting such a thing occur.
Throughout the 1700s, it started to dawn on people in the medical profession that things could be done to revive people previously thought of as dead. This included things like mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for people who had drowned and performing simple tests on a supposed corpse to see if any reaction occurred. This led doctors to freely admit that many mistakes had probably been made and the fear of being buried alive started to take a deeper root in society’s imagination. It also led to the first US President, George Washington, telling his servants as he was dying in 1799 to leave his burial for 3 days after his death to avoid the nightmare scenario of being buried alive.
In 1891 in Pikeville, Kentucky, USA, Octavia Hatcher sunk into a depression after the death of her baby son. It seemed that some other illness was also at play, though, and she slipped into a coma and was pronounced dead a few days later. This was in May and as the weather was hot, Octavia was buried rather speedily. This would have been the end to the sad story but shortly after Octavia’s burial, other people in the town also started falling into comas, only to recover a few days later. It turned out that the tsetse fly or maybe a mosquito was to blame, spreading a strain of sleeping sickness among the community. Thinking that Octavia may also have had the same illness, her husband immediately had her exhumed but his worst fears were realised. When her coffin was opened it seemed that she had indeed woken up, but due to being in a confined space, her last moments alive had been spent trying desperately, and unsuccessfully, to scrabble her way out. Octavia was reburied with a life-size monument of her above the grave, next to that of her deceased baby.
The 19th century is where we can get some actual numbers relating to premature burials.
William Tebb’s book “Premature Burial and How it May be Prevented” was published in 1896 and drew on research and records found for numerous cases of near-miss and actual premature burials reported in Britain and Europe up to that point in time. Tebb found 219 documented cases of near-miss premature burials and 149 actual premature burials. He also found reports of 10 dissections performed on people who were still alive, at least at the start, and 2 cases of premature embalming. These numbers reflect reported cases that were actually known about so just imagine how many more there could have been.
Even in the 20th century, being pronounced dead was not necessarily 100% accurate. Take the case of Angelo Hays. In southwestern France in 1937, 19 year old Angelo crashed his motorbike and went flying headfirst into a brick wall. With a smashed-in head and no discernable pulse, he was declared dead and was buried three days later. Luckily for Angelo, his father had taken an insurance policy out on him and the insurance company decided they needed to take a look at his body. Two days after he was buried, he was exhumed, found to still be warm and rushed into the hospital. Being in a coma had kept him alive in the coffin as his body hadn’t been using as much oxygen as it normally would. After some surgery, Angelo ended up making a full recovery, became a bit of a national celeb and died in 2008 at the age of 90.
In 2018, Brazilian Rosangela Almeida dos Santos was declared dead by septic shock after having had 2 heart attacks following various other health problems. With a history of fainting spells, Rosangela was declared dead and was buried on January 29th. People living near the cemetery contacted her family after hearing muffled screams coming from her tomb a full 11 days after she was buried. When relatives eventually managed to smash the stone tomb and open her coffin, they found new injuries to Rosangela’s hands and forehead, consistent with someone trying to fight their way out of a coffin. The nails in the lid had loosened and cotton wool that had been in her nostrils and ears had come out. People agreed that her body still felt warm but unfortunately the rescue had come too late and Rosangela was now actually dead.
Since the gradual realisation that being buried alive could actually happen, people started taking measures to guard against it. The Victorians were, of course, the hysterical masters when it came to worrying about premature burial. The Duke of Wellington died in 1858 and wasn’t buried for 2 months in case he miraculously sprang back to life. He didn’t.
The simplest way to avoid being buried alive, is of course to make sure you’re definitely dead and for eager Victorian-era doctors, this included such practices as giving bodies electric shocks, throwing boiling water on them, pulling their tongues for hours in what was known as “tongue cranking”, using tobacco smoke enemas to try and revive people and even lopping off a finger or toe to shock the person back to consciousness. If all else failed, it wasn’t uncommon for doctors to stab or behead corpses just to save them the potential stress of later awakening in a coffin.
Victorians also used “waiting mortuaries” which, as you can probably tell, were places where corpses could lie for a while to determine whether or not they were actually dead before a burial took place. This idea had, in fact, been used in France and Germany almost a hundred years previously but presumably none of the rotting bodies ever recovered and it started being thought of as shameful to have dead bodies out on display for anybody to gawk at so the practice was ended in about 1860.
But what if you didn’t want to be beheaded by a doctor and the worst happened and you were, in fact, buried while actually merely in a deep coma? This is where the safety coffin came in.
The first recorded safety coffin was one created by Prussian nobleman, Charles William Ferdinand of Brunswick in 1790. He was buried in a coffin with a viewing window so cemetery workers or visitors could take a look at his body and hopefully see it decaying nicely rather than seeing him frantically waving at them from below ground. He also had keys to the coffin lid buried with him and an air tube was inserted just in case he needed it. He didn’t.
In the 19th century, safety coffins really took off. An American patent filed in 1868 met the “waiting mortuaries” halfway by suggesting that coffins should be buried just under the earth, not the whole way down. If a mistake had been made, the occupant could either climb out by ladder or ring a bell to summon a rescuer. If nothing happened, the coffin would then be fully buried a week or so later.
It seems that the easiest way of alerting people to the fact that you had been buried in error was for some sort of signal to go off above your grave. Bells, flags and even rockets were popular choices to indicate that the occupant of the coffin had started moving around. Unfortunately, these were not very reliable as bodies can bloat and release gasses when they’re decomposing so this sometimes led to enough movement for a system to go off and a cemetery worker to race for his shovel. It’s not known how many false alarms were set off but it is also not known if anyone was ever pulled alive from a grave using this method. If it had worked even once, I’m sure we would have heard about it.
One notable invention from 1899 suggested that a sheet of glass could be used either as a viewing window to ensure the person was dead, or could be shattered by the prematurely buried person to alert other people and also to get fresh air into the coffin. To do this, you had to smash the glass with your head. Ouch.
People also started being buried with ladders, tools, fans and other things to help them escape by themselves but again, this was heavy on precaution with no actual escapes having ever been recorded. Even into the 20th century, safety coffins were still being innovated. Remember Frenchman Angelo Hays? In the 1970s he invented his own coffin and toured it around France. As well as such sensible precautions as a supply of oxygen and a radio transmitter, the coffin was also kitted out with a food locker, library and even a chemical toilet in case you were down there for a while.
In 1995 improvements were still being made by a coffin patented by Fabrizio Caselli. His two-way speaker system, oxygen tank and torch would have calmed even the most nervous of the not-yet deceased, and if the occupant still wasn’t sure which side of the great divide they were on, it also came with a heartbeat monitor and heart stimulator.
While being buried alive is probably still a fear somewhere deep at the back of most of our minds, it definitely happens less today than in the past. Improvements in medical monitoring and just knowledge of the human body in general means that it’s now hugely unlikely that this fate will befall you. If you’re still worried, you could take a leaf out of Hans Christian Andersen’s book. The author was so scared of being buried alive that whenever he travelled he left a note next to his bed saying “I only appear to be dead” in case an overzealous housekeeper sent him to the funeral parlour before he had time to wake up properly. Or you could just go for the obvious choice and get cremated.