Lifting the Lid on a Macabre History

by M-Gillies

With only an hour or two of oxygen available if buried alive, somebody better be listening for those bells ringing.

“Earth is suffocating. Swear to make them cut me open so that I won’t be buried alive.”

Frederic Chopin

For centuries, stories have circulated about bodies being exhumed, only to find the interior of the casket shredded with claw marks while the body of the supposedly deceased lay mummified in a pose of utter horror. Sounds like campfire stories one would tell to scare willing listeners, but behind every tale of suspense lies a folkloric truth.

It was during the 18th and 19th century in Europe when the epidemic of fear began over being hastily pronounced dead and inadvertently buried alive. Because these premature burials weren’t just isolated incidences either, many people began leaving stipulations in their last will and testaments which guaranteed certainty of their deaths by requesting a series of bizarre measures be taken which included blood being drained from the body, or their heart being removed completely.

In response to the increase of taphophobia, the Society for the Prevention of People Being Buried Alive formed in 1896.

However, during the crisis of vivisepulture, over 30 different designs were patented in preventing live burials. These mechanisms allowed the presumed dead to communicate with people above ground in the event that they had been accidentally buried. Many of these safety coffin designs required the use of rope, which, when pulled would ring the church bell or a mounted bell. Other designs included the use of a raisable flag, a powerful fire cracker or a pyrotechnic rocket, and then there were the designs that included a shovel, ladder and a ration of food and water.

Despite the various attempts of preventing premature burials, throughout history, there have been numerous cases of live burials reported, many of which were uncovered by body snatchers or exhumation for interment at another location. However, among the tales of live burials, one incident in South Caroline in the 1850s tells of a young girl believed to have died from diphtheria. During a time before embalming was accepted as standard practice, the young girl was buried in the family’s mausoleum. It wasn’t until the civil war, after the death of their son that they found the mummified remains of their daughter resting behind the locked door, having been buried alive.

While still common today, the reason for premature burials could be partially blamed on the lack of education in regards to a person’s death. The phenomenon of the human body was not fully understood at the time and often deep comas and paralytic disorders left the individual appearing dead, while in fact in a state of stasis. With primitive techniques of checking the vitality of a person’s life included placing a mirror beneath their nose to see if it fogs (fogging a mirror), it wasn’t uncommon for these rare cases to end up prematurely buried.

For those who are prematurely buried, their deaths may be brought on by the following: asphyxiation, dehydration, starvation or hypothermia. However, while human survival may be briefly extended as their metabolism slows, in the absence of oxygen, it is estimated the body will have within 1-2 hours (from burial time) of oxygen before loss of consciousness occurs and the body asphyxiates.

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