Premature burial was a very real possibility in days long past / Dominic Dibbs/Photodisc/Getty Images
Patent drawing for J. G. Krichbaum’s safety coffin. / Wikimedia Commons
Taphophobia, or the fear of premature burial, reached a fever pitch at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. One of the reasons for this was people realized that the methods doctors used to confirm death were sometimes unreliable. Physicians of this era depended on their senses to detect a pulse or respiration, so when patients had an illness, like cholera, that could mimic the stillness of death there was always a possibility that someone could be buried alive.
Countless articles about premature burial were published in newspapers in Europe and the U.S.-though the actual number of cases was probably greatly exaggerated. After hearing these stories, people went to great lengths to avoid a similar fate. They wrote clauses into their wills about how dispose of their bodies, inventors created coffins with mechanisms to contact the outside world, and societies dedicated to the prevention of premature burial set guidelines for doctors to confirm death.
Below, in chronological order, are excerpts that describe the odd and innovative ways they tried to avoid being buried alive.
Design for Safety Coffin. Dr Johann Taberger Der Scheintod Hanover 1829. / Wikimedia Commons
The Saint Paul Globe January 4, 1880 – “Poor Memory.”
A painter of celebrity in Paris, when his first wife-he has now married another-was sick unto death, was informed by her of her great fear of being buried alive, and thereupon promised to make an incision in her neck when he thought her dead. He, however, failed to recollect it. Some months after he was dining with a friend and paying court to the one he wished to make successor to the deceased one. Out of a brown study, he suddenly exclaimed, “By Jove! I forgot to cut my wife’s throat.” It needed long explanations before the other took him.
The Courier-Journal January 24, 1891 – “His Heart Cut Out.”; “A Baltimore Physician’s Burial Alive Prevented By a Peculiar Will.”
Dr. Charles F. Heuser died on Wednesday. In his will he had stipulated that his heart should be cut out, viewed and restored to its place, and that his body be then cremated.
The Saint Paul Globe September 25, 1895 – “If Buried Alive.”
Mr. Deveau, who says he spent twelve years of his life and a fortune perfecting the grave signal, has been exhibiting it during the summer in the Sea Beach palace at Coney Island…
The grave signal consists of a rod that runs down through a tube into the coffin and rests upon the forehead of the interred. A series of rubber valves prevents the egress of vapor from the grave. At the slightest movement of the body in the coffin the rod flies up, all the valves are opened, air flows into the prison and the unfortunate who thus wakes up in the darkness and on the other side of the earth waits patiently until some one strolling through the cemetery notices that the little red ball signal on the top of the grave is displayed, and thereupon sounds the alarm.”
The Evening Times April 30, 1896 – “Plate Glass Coffins.”
The latest invention in coffins is a glass casket, which, among other advantages, will relieve the fears of those whose minds constantly revert to being buried alive. By this coffin the mourners will be able to detect the slightest movement of the corpse through the transparent walls…
Although resembling the metallic or wooden casket in shape, the glass coffin is radically different in every other respect. Not only is it made of glass, but an in-moulded network of wire reinforces the strength of the sides and top. The glass employed in the construction of the caskets will be of the heavy plate description, which, when carefully joined in compact form, will prove fully as strong as the wooden article now in use.
The Daily Herald September 14, 1896 – “X Rays Do It.”; “An Infallible Indication of Death Said to Have Been Discovered.”
At last what seems an infallible indication of death has been discovered. Scores of people have a horror of being buried alive, and there have been many attempts made to discover some test aside from time that will assure friends that death has really occurred and that the burial may safely proceed. Heretofore none of these tests has been absolute, and each has failed signally.
Dr. C.L. Barnes, a Chicago physician, has recently been experimenting with X rays, and he now announces that they will determine positively whether real death has occurred or whether the patient is in a trance. Dr. Barnes made a shadow-graph of his own hand, and on the same plate laid the dissected hand of a cadaver. When the plate was developed, after being exposed to the mysterious rays for some time, the difference in the two radiographs was noticeable. The dead flesh offered more resistance to the penetration of the rays than the living, and a glance would determine which was the hand of the corpse.
Merck’s Archives, Vol. 2 1900 – “Tests of Death”
Application has been made to the Secretary of State for a charter for the American Society for the Prevention of Premature Burial. By the provisions of this society physicians of the State of New York will be compelled to furnish a death certificate with the following formula: Two or more incisions in an artery; the palm of the hand exposed to the flame of a candle not more than five inches away; a mirror or crystal held to the lips, with no signs of respiration; a hot iron or steel placed against the flesh without producing a blister. Mortuary chapels to be established in which the bodies of the dead are to be held several hors before burial.
The New York Times July 27, 1912 – “Feared Being Buried Alive.”; “Mrs. Brown Wanted Veins Opened Before Interment of Her Body.”
The will which accompanied the report of the appraisal of the estate of Sibella Harriott Brown, who died on April 16, 1911, disclosed the fact that the testator was afraid of being buried alive…
In the will she says:
‘If I shall die in England I wish to be buried with my parents in Kensal Green Cemetery in their grave No. 27,336, and I expressly request that my executors take every precaution against my being buried alive, and for this purpose I direct them to allow a full and sufficient time to elapse between by death and my funeral and to have my body examined by experienced surgeons, who shall see that by veins are opened before my body is committed to the grave.’
The Brownsville Herald August 2, 1930 – “Buried Alive”; “Mexican Inventor Proves Idea Is Practicable”
Rodriguez, in collaboration with Enrique Bosdet, a Mexican of Canadian parentage, is the co-inventor of a device to apprehend the burial of supposedly dead persons alive…
The invention consists of a breathing and speaking tube leading from the coffin to the exterior of the grave. Upon the slightest movement on the part of buried person this tube opens, but it cannot be opened except from underground. An automatic bell, which is connected with the office of the overseer of the cemetery, then rings until the buried person is resurrected.