History’s Best Strategies for Avoiding Being Buried Alive

These ingenious
19th-century techniques aimed to make sure dead really meant dead.

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What if your last
breath was only a poor assumption, a supposition? What if
your family, the doctor, the coroner were all wrong, and you found yourself
buried alive? You’d scratch and claw, scream and shout, and no one—no one—would
hear you. There’s a name for this feeling: taphophobia, the overwhelming fear
of being buried alive.

For centuries there have been stories, many of them
myths, about people who met this panic-inducing fate. And real mistakes have
indeed happened. According to Christine Quigley in her book The
Corpse: A History
, “in the early 1900s, a case of premature burial was
discovered an average of once a week.” Once a week! That’s not just something
to worry about—it’s something to get to work on preventing. So, how to make
sure that the dead are really dead?

There’s always the ancient Roman method where mourners
waited eight days to bury a body, giving the supposed deceased ample time to
snap out of it. But maybe this seems far too passive. Enterprising taphophobes
throughout history, and especially in the 19th century, have deployed a wide
array of methods to ensure that dead means dead.

The Housecall

Fearing a premature burial, Hannah Beswick, an
18th-century English woman, left her entire estate to her doctor, Charles
White, with just one stipulation: her body could never be buried. Never.
Instead, Dr. White was required to check on her corpse every day until he could
be sure, really sure, that she was dead. This was a lot to ask, and at some
point, White embalmed her body. He kept her mummified remains in his collection
of anatomical specimens, and every day, for several years, the good doctor and
two witnesses unveiled Beswick and made sure she was still dead. He later moved
her body into an old clock case, and as Jan Bondeson writes in his book A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities, the
doctor opened the case “once a year to see how his favorite patient was doing.”

The Security Coffin

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U.S.
patent number 81,437
 was issued in 1868. This particular invention was
for a security coffin, which came with all the bells and whistles the
not-quite-dead-yet could ever need. The design includes a rope, ladder, and
bell. Wake up in the coffin? Ring the bell which has helpfully been attached to
the rope you’re holding. Nobody around to hear that bell? Try the ladder, which
inventor Franz Vester imagined would allow a person to “ascend from the grave.”

The Grave Window

Like Hannah Beswick, Timothy
Clark Smith
, a Vermont taphophobia sufferer, decided to rely on others to
make sure his death wasn’t announced too early. Smith asked to have a window
installed on his grave, “six feet above him and centered squarely on his face,”
when he died. Today the glass has clouded with age and it’s impossible to get a
look at Smith, but imagine a breathy fog covering the glass, and Smith waiting
for someone to notice. Of course, by all accounts Smith never had to have the
assistance of a helpful passerby, and he died without incident in 1893.

The Easy-Opener

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How, exactly, would the newly awakened lift those heavy
coffin lids? Johan
Jacob Toolen
 had it covered. His 1907 patent understood that the
prematurely buried might be a little tired and incorporated easy-open lids so
that the presumed dead wouldn’t have to struggle for freedom. His design was
tailor-made for the self-reliant not-dead person. “With very slight exertion on
his part,” Toolen explained, the apparently, but not really, dead “can immediately
obtain a supply of fresh air and may afterwards leave the coffin.”

The Emergency Airway

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Forward-thinking safety-coffin designers thought of everything. Gael
Bedl
’s 1887 design came equipped with an air pipe that would be opened if
there were movement in the coffin. It also featured an “electric alarm
apparatus,” which emitted an audible sound when the air pipe engaged. Bedl’s
patent application noted that the air pipe could be made of any decorative
material. The day’s been tough enough, being buried alive and all, no need to
sacrifice style.

The Completist Approach

William Tebb was a busy man in 1896. The businessman had
devoted much of his life to his various pet causes (animal rights, anti-war,
anti-vaccines), but one meeting in particular gave Tebb a chance to step into
his role as advocate for the prematurely buried.

Tebb met Roger S. Chew, a doctor who, through the
eagle-eyed observations of a family member, narrowly avoided an early grave
himself, in the early 1890s. After surviving his brush with burial, Chew
devoted himself to medicine and to saving others from his almost-fate. Meeting
Chew sparked something in Tebb, and in 1896 he founded the London Association
for the Prevention of Premature Burial. Tebb, along with Dr. Edward Vollman
(himself a survivor of a near-burial), eventually published the book Premature
Burial and How it May Be Prevented
 in 1905.

The book outlined the various ways one might be mistaken
for dead (trance, catatonic state, “human hibernation”), and provided case
studies of humans and animals who, although thought dead, were revived. The
book also included various techniques that had been used in the past (with
varying success) to prevent this from happening. The authors explored every
option, from using fire to blister the hand of the presumed dead person (which,
they admitted, might not be effective because the person may be so out of it
that they may not respond “even to the application of red hot irons”) to
injecting the presumed dead with morphine or strychnine, which, well, if they
weren’t dead before…

Premature Burial also explored artificial
respiration and electric shock, which were both new ideas at the time.
Ultimately, the authors admitted that all of their work might not actually be
that effective. Dead would always be dead to the unimaginative and, as they
wrote, “the appearance of death is generally taken for its reality.” When Tebb
died, he didn’t take any chances—he was cremated one week later.

Our fear of being trapped in an untimely burial plot
isn’t just a lingering 19th-century fascination; as recently as 2013,
designs for coffins and instruments that claim to prevent premature burial have
been submitted. Somewhere deep inside all of us is a lingering worry that what
was supposed to be a final resting place might actually be what kills you.

[Ashawnta
Jackson, Atlas Obscura
]