‘To be buried alive is, beyond question, the most terrible of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality.’

Cases of being accidentally buried alive date back to the 14th century when the corpse of philosopher John Duns Scotus was reportedly found outside his coffin with bloodied hands. Since then, there have been countless tales of people hearing cries and wails of the dead, longing to get out of their coffins. As recently as 2014, there was a noted case of a woman being buried alive in Peraia, Greece. The woman succumbed to cancer. Not long after her burial, her children heard screams coming from her grave. She was exhumed, and it was discovered that she actually died of cardiac arrest. To the horror of her family, it was discovered that her death occurred after she was in the grave.

The Historical Medical Library has an array of materials that touch on this subject – a subject that was, and is, still a fear to many.

Literature of Premature Burial

The bulk of literature on premature burial cases comes from the 19th century, when a mixture of medical fact and sensationalism began to cause mass hysteria. Cholera epidemics in the early and mid-19th century caused much panic and fear to those living through them. Fear of being mistaken for dead grew as accounts of past epidemics were re-visited. In an account of the Yellow Fever epidemic of Philadelphia in 1793, an article written in 1834 states that the sick were taken along with the dead to mass burial sites in an attempt to control the disease. People began reading such stories as fact. While there was a chance that this may have happened in 1793, people later in the 19th century related it to their experience of cholera, which only fed into their fear that they would be mistaken for dead.

Diagnostic technology in the mid-19th century was not sophisticated enough to detect faint signs of life. Laennec’s invention of the stethoscope in 1816 aided in diagnosis – but his stethoscope was unable to detect faint heartbeats. Many physicians took the fear of premature burial as a legitimate threat and published pamphlets and books that gave pointers on how to not to be buried alive – and even how to revive a corpse! One of the more interesting books was Our home doctor: Domestic and botanical remedies simplified and explained for family treatment. With a treatise upon suspended animation, the danger of burying alive, and directions for restoration, by Moore Russell Fletcher (1890). The book provides a general overview of domestic medical treatments for the family. Most notable is the section in the back of the book which discusses the idea of premature burial, which shows the prevalence of the fear of being buried alive.

Our Home Doctor, 1884
Our Home Doctor, 1884

The horror was only escalated by writings of such people as Edgar Allen Poe, who published “Berenice,” a gripping tale of a man who was buried alive, in Southern Literary Messenger in 1835. While there were some actual cases of people being buried alive, there were not as many cases as Poe’s writings might suggest.

London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial

The London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial was founded by Dr. William Tebb of Manchester (1830 – 1917). Tebb was a radical in his day and was a part of such movements as the anti-vaccination movement in the U.K. and the abolitionist movement in America. One of his primary research areas was the idea of premature burial. He co-founded the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial in 1896 with Walter Hadwen. The association was created to discuss:

1. The prevention of Premature Burial
2. The diffusion of knowledge regarding the pre-disposing causes of the various forms of Suspended Animation or Death-Counterfeits.
3. The maintenance in London of an office for the publication of Literature, and as a center of information and agitation.[i]

For one Guinea per year, subscribers to the association would receive pamphlets as well as a form entitling a “careful death verification” to the subscriber that would be given to family and to the association. The association believed that “it is now universally admitted by experts that the only absolute sign of death is advancing decomposition” despite the “various tests and signs of death [that] have been from time to time put forward by medical practitioners.” Tebb himself was not cremated until a week after his death – his will stated he should not be buried until an unmistakable evidence of decomposition was visible.

Blank Death Verification, London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial
Blank Death Verification, London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial

Safety Coffins

Safety coffins were designed to prevent premature burial by allowing the person to signal that they had been buried alive by tugging on a cord that would be attached to a bell. There were also other models that had designs for ladders, escape hatches, and feeding tubes.

The first recorded safety coffin was ordered by Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick in 1792.  This coffin was equipped with keys to open the coffin and the tomb door, along with a window for light, and an air tube.

In 1829, Johann Taberger designed a bell system that had strings attached to the body so any movement would alert the night watchman in the cemetery. In 1868, Franz Vester created the “Burial Case” which included a tube for an onlooker to see the face of the corpse. Decomposition can cause movement in the corpse, which could cause a “false positive” in coffins rigged with bells. With the tube, the watchman of the cemetery could verify that the corpse was still a corpse. Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki patented a coffin in 1897 and presented it at the Sorbonne. His coffin also detected movement, but would open a tube to supply air along with ringing bells and raising a flag.

Despite all the effort put in to making these coffins “safe,” it is unclear if they actually saved anyone’s life.

Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki's safety coffin, 1899
Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki’s safety coffin, 1899

The title of this blog is a quotation from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Premature Burial.”

[i] The London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial.  Premature burial and how it may be prevented with special reference to trance, catalepsy, and other forms of suspended animation.  London: S. Sonnenschein & Co., 1896.