Why you should care
Because death is not always a one-way street.
A true connoisseur of the macabre, American horror writer Edgar Allan Poe knew all too well what frightened his readers, and one of his favorite subjects was the fear of a particular form of life after death. “To be buried while alive is, beyond question,” Poe wrote in his story “The Premature Burial,” “the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality.”
Poe was far from the only one of his age afflicted with this form of Gothic paranoia. Deathly scared of being buried alive, a number of 19th-century inventors developed some rather ingenious methods to allow the recently interred to notify the world of their continued viability.
A number of creative detection methods were employed to identify and resuscitate the apparent dead.
As author and Cardiff University professor Jan Bondeson chronicles in Buried Alive, premature burial was not just the subject of fictional fearmongers like Poe, but a bona fide medical issue in the 18th and 19th centuries. Death from infectious diseases like cholera was rampant, and the prevailing medical wisdom that such diseases were spread from “bad air” meant burials were often expedited to aid in containment. Combine this haste with poorly trained medical professionals and prehistoric diagnostic equipment, and it was not unheard of for living individuals to awake and find themselves six feet under.
Nonfictional tales of the “apparent dead” spread both by word of mouth and medical reports. In 1749, for example, a French physician documented 56 instances of premature burial as well as 125 narrow escapes. An 1877 article in the British Medical Journal reported the case of a Naples woman whose grave had been reopened to bury a second body a few days after she’d been interred, only to reveal “that the clothes which covered the unfortunate woman were torn to pieces, and that she had even broken her limbs in attempting to extricate herself from the living tomb.”
Such gruesome tales sparked an outbreak of taphephobia (Greek for “grave” and “fear”), which claimed some very well-known individuals, from George Washington — who requested that his corpse remain aboveground for at least three days prior to burial — to Alfred Nobel, whose will, in addition to establishing the Nobel Prizes, detailed the steps for ensuring that “competent Doctors” had “confirmed clear signs of death” in his corpse. “The signs of death were doubted in large parts of Europe in Poe’s time,” Bondeson tells OZY, “and in Germany, there were waiting mortuaries where corpses were incubated until they were putrid, since putrefaction was considered the only certain sign of death.”
A number of more creative detection methods were also employed to identify and resuscitate the apparent dead during the 18th and 19th centuries, from pouring vinegar or urine into the mouth of a corpse or placing stinging insects in its ear to the popular tobacco smoke enema. If you weren’t already dead before undergoing such diagnostic methods, you almost certainly wished you were.
The ultimate fail-safe against premature burial, however, was the “security” or “safety” coffin, and there were some ingeniously designed contraptions for ensuring communication from the grave to the world of the living. One early example, made for Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick in Germany in 1792, included a window, an airhole with attached tube, and a lock-and-key lid that could be opened from the inside. Another German, Adolf Gutsmuth, devised a coffin that had a tube for both air and food, and the good doctor demonstrated the effectiveness of his invention by having himself buried for several hours, during which time he enjoyed a meal of soup, beer and sausages.
Bondeson says his favorite security coffin is the one made by yet another German doctor, Johann Georg Taberger, who doubted that most people buried by mistake would have the wits or strength to perform the tasks required by other coffin models. Taberger’s invention made use of strings tied to the feet, hands and head of the body that would exit the casket and ring a bell outside it at the slightest movement. The contraption even included a drainage system to prevent rainwater from, as Bondeson writes, “adding the Chinese water torture to the horrors of a premature tomb.” Of course, even with all of these precautions in place, there was still the rather nontrivial matter of having a live person near enough to the grave if the bell rang.
The risk of premature burial has declined substantially in recent years, but security coffins still surface from time to time to remedy this age-old fear. In the mid-1990s, an Italian watchmaker marketed a $4,500 casket that included a telephone, a flashlight, a heart stimulator and a two-way intercom. Perhaps someday Nest or another tech company will build a “smart casket” or link the dead into the Internet of Things. Or perhaps there will just be an app for that — assuming your smartphone battery doesn’t die well before you don’t.