Sunday, 1 March 2020

"I'm Alive!" The Victorians and Premature Burial

In 1792, in conformity with his will, Henry Laurens of South Carolina was cremated. His reason: a long-standing fear of being buried alive. Taphophobia, or the fear of being buried alive, has a long history. Tales of people being buried prematurely have been related for centuries, and at least some are well documented. The fear of such a fate seems to have increased, in Europe and America at least, from the late 18th century. Perhaps alleged cases of burial alive were being more widely publicized.

Estimates of the numbers of premature burials around this time varied widely, from a preposterous third of people buried to one in a thousand. Common or not, many people became obsessed with the possibility that they might suffer this horrific fate.

Concerns about premature burial increased during the Victorian Age because epidemics of cholera, typhoid, and other diseases altered customary burial practices. During epidemics, burials often took place as quickly as possible, in hopes of preventing spread of the disease. The traditional practice in many countries was to lay the body out for several days before burial, at which point it would normally exhibit clear visual and olfactory signs of mortality. Rapid burials removed that certainty.

Art and literature also contributed to the growing sense of alarm. During a cholera epidemic in 1854, Belgian artist Antoine Wiertz painted "The Premature Burial." It depicts a cholera victim awakening after being placed in a coffin. Writers also addressed the subject, notably Edgar Allen Poe in his story of the same name.

Whatever the reality regarding premature burials, fear of it was common enough to inspire Victorian entrepreneurs to devise means of prevention. They designed "safety" coffins with various escape mechanisms or means by which prematurely buried persons could signal that they were alive.

An early safety coffin, patented in the USA in 1843, contained springs and levers that would open the lid with slightest movement inside, or so the inventor claimed.

Many safety coffins featured a bell on the lid from which a rope was attached. The rope was inserted into a hole in the lid and placed in the hands of the coffin's occupant. If they revived they could pull the rope to announce the fact. The one below, patented in the 1860s, added an escape hatch and a ladder as well. Michael Crichton, in his novel The Great Train Robbery, includes a scene in which one of the robbers is placed in such a coffin.

Other safety coffins were fitted with glass panes, breathing pipes, and/or flags. J. G. Krichbaum's 1882 model included a periscope-like pipe that supplied air and could be rotated or pushed by the interred person, alerting anyone nearby that s/he was alive.

All such contraptions, of course, relied on another person being near enough to hear or see the signal. Someone needed to keep a watch on the grave for a few days, just in case. Families sometimes hired people for this task. The watchers could also help prevent the body being carried off by "resurrection men" or body snatchers, for dissection in anatomy schools. 

The inventor of the vault below, from about 1890, found a way to solve that problem, and declared that it rendered premature burial "impossible." Each of the chambers was fitted with an escape hatch, a handwheel on the door. The vault was supplied with air and lined with felt to prevent injury. The body was removed from the coffin before being placed in the chamber.

Alas, despite the claims of inventors, there is no documented evidence that any of these safety features saved anyone from premature burial.



  1. The newly revived person still had whatever conditon "killed" them. They might be too weak to turn a handwheel, even if thye knew how and could do it in the dark.