The fear of being buried alive is know as taphophobia, and as early as the 14th century, there are accounts of specific people being buried alive.
We are in High Middle Ages, and when the tomb of philosopher John Duns Scotus was opened, his was reportedly found outside of his coffin, his hands torn up in a way that suggests he had once tried to free himself.
In 17th century England, it is documented that a woman, Alice Blunden, was so knocked out after having imbibed a large quantity of poppy tea that a doctor holding a mirror to her nose and mouth pronounced her dead. Her family quickly made arrangements for her burial, but two days after children playing near her grave heard noises and their school master found that she was still alive, but it took another day to exhume her. The next morning, she was found dead, but only after struggling to free herself once more.
So, especially in the eighteenth century, rumors swirled about people accidentally buried alive when they lapsed into a deathlike state like catalepsy or apparent death.
Victorians fear being buried alive more than death itself. In the late 19th century, books and newspapers were full of stories of terrifying premature internments, although it’s not clear how many actually occurred.
From those eighteen century fears there arose a thriving cottage industry of inventors who promised to protect the seemingly-dead from being prematurely buried.
One of the more popular kinds of safety coffin is also called an “escape vault”, because each grave door was built as a hatch that could be opened from the inside.
For example those created in the 1930s for Thomas Pursell (who was terrified of being buried alive) and his family, in Williamsberg, PA. Each grave was felt-lined, and family members were buried with boards, tools, and bread, just in case they woke up and needed a snack before breaking out.
This fear led to one of the creepiest categories of invention: coffin alarms. There were a series of inventions in the 19th century, which would aid someone, who was buried alive, to escape, breathe and signal for help! In addition to the famous “hospitals for the dead“, one of the more famous of these devices was created by the Russian Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki, and included a spring-loaded compartment atop the grave that would pop open like a jack-in-the box if there were any bodily movement below.
Here is a series of coffins with an innovative “anti-escape” system:
Patent No. 81,437 granted to Franz Vester on August 25, 1868 for an “Improved Burial-Case”
The tomb is equipped with a number of features including an air inlet (F), a ladder (H) and a bell (I) so that the person, upon waking, could save himself. “If too weak to ascend by the ladder, he can ring the bell, giving the desired alarm for help, and thus save himself from premature death by being buried alive,” the patent explains.
Patent No. 268,693 granted on December 5, 1882 to John Krichbaum for a “Device for Indicating Live in Buried Persons”
The device has both a means for indicating movement as well as a way of getting fresh air into the coffin. “It will be seen that if the person buried should come to life a motion of his hands will turn the branches of the T-shaped pipe B, upon or near which his hands are placed.” A marked scale on the side of the top (E) indicates movement of the T, and air passively comes down the pipe. Once sufficient time has passed to assure that the person is dead, the device can be removed.
Patent No. 329,495 granted on November 3, 1885 to Charles Sieler and Fredrerick Borntraeger for a “Burial-Casket”
The invention provides for improvements in the important components of the previous devices. In this casa, motion of the body triggers a clockwork-driven fan (Fig. 6), which will force fresh breathable air into the coffin instead of a passive air pipe. The device also includes a battery-powered alarm (M). According to the patent, “When the hand is moved the exposed part of the the wire will come in contact with the body, completing the circuit between the alarm and the ground to the body in the coffin,” the alarm will sound. There is also a spring-loaded rod (I), which will raise up carrying feathers or other signals. Additonally, a tube (E) is positioned over the face of the burried body so that a lamp may be introduced down the tube and “a person looking down through the tube can see the face of the body in the coffin.”
Earlier examples of the safety coffin were even more elaborate, perhaps reflecting the fetishism of the Victorian era. Many safety coffins of the era was attached to a tube that gravediggers or priests could look through and monitor. If they saw movement, or noticed that there was no smell of putrefaction, they were supposed to dig up the grave immediately.
The elaborate bell system, which supposedly the trapped person could ring if they awoke underground, rarely worked, since even if the person rang them, nobody was around to hear. Gravediggers were sometimes paid to keep watch over these graves and listen for the bells to go off!
Of course, with the medicine’s development, there have been technological advances in determining if someone is alive or dead. There are machines that monitor heartbeat, brainwaves and respiration, however even though the fad of coffin alarms has long passed, there are some curious 21st century innovations.
Patent No. 5,353,609 granted on October 11, 1994 to Ruby Hall for a “Casket Jewelry Guard Apparatus”
Tomb robbing was recognized as a problem as early as the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150 – c. 2613 BC), and the living have taken measures to protect the dead and their valuables back to the time of Egyptian Pharaohs. Many of these tombs were equipped with deterrents and safety measures.
This invention, patented in 1994, however, is next level when it comes to protecting the deceased’s valuables. The apparatus attaches the jewelry worn by the deceased to an alarm system while also securing it to the casket. So even after “death do us part,” spouses can wear their wedding rings for eternity.
Patent No. 7,765,656 granted August 3, 2010 to Jeff Dannenberg for an “Apparatus and Method for Generating Post-Burial Audio Communications in a Burial Casket”
In this instance, the casket has an audio message system (20) containing audio and music files that are automatically played in accordance with a programmed schedule, thereby allowing the living to communicate with the deceased. The system also allows for wireless updating of the recorded files, giving “surviving family members the ability to update, revise and edit stored audio files and programming after burial.”
Patent No. 9,226,059 granted on December 29, 2015 to John Knight for “Your Music for Eternity Systems”
The system comprises a solar powered digital music player, which allows both the living as well as the dearly departed to be comforted by music or a recorded message. There is a speaker in the casket and a headset jack on the headstone.
In the 19th century, master story teller Edgar Allen Poe tell about human fears in his stories, and also about the fear of being buried alive. In “Premature Burial,” a short story first published in 1844, the narrator describes his struggle with things such as “attacks of the singular disorder which physicians have agreed to term catalepsy,” an actual medical condition characterized by a death-like trance and rigidity to the body. The story focuses on the narrator’s fear of being buried alive and the corrective actions he takes to prevent it. He makes friends promise that they will not bury him prematurely, does not stray from his home, and builds a tomb with equipment allowing him to signal for help in case he should be buried alive only to wake from one of his episodes.
Edgar Allan Poe describes how the narrator remodeled the tomb:
“The slightest pressure upon a long lever that extended far into the tomb would cause the iron portal to fly back. There were arrangements also for the free admission of air and light, and convenient receptacles for food and water, within immediate reach of the coffin intended for my reception. This coffin was warmly and softly padded, and was provided with a lid, fashioned upon the principle of the vault-door, with the addition of springs so contrived that the feeblest movement of the body would be sufficient to set it at liberty. Besides all this, there was suspended from the roof of the tomb, a large bell, the rope of which, it was designed, should extend through a hole in the coffin, and so be fastened to one of the hands of the corpse.”
Unfortunately, the character takes all of these precautions only to find that his greatest fear is realized.
However, It is not clear if Poe inspired innovation or if he was merely tapping into the feelings of the time…..