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The people who were BURIED ALIVE by mistake

Updated: Mar 9, 2022

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There was a young man at Nunhead,

who awoke in a coffin of lead;

“It is cosy enough,”

He remarked in a huff,

“But I wasn’t aware I was dead.”

This limerick was published anonymously in the early 1900’s and is one of the lighter things that will be discussed today because this subject matter is, as always, pretty dark. Today’s topic is is something I’ve always had a fear of, so I wanted to talk about stories of it actually — maybe — happening to others, and how people have viewed the subject over the past hundred years or so. Let’s talk about people who were accidentally buried alive.

So to start out, the concept of premature burial is such a broad topic that I have to narrow it down. I want to talk about what this video will be and what it won’t be. I’ll mostly be talking about specific cases of people who were accidentally buried alive — some of them confirmed true, some of them closer to legends — as well as some of the history behind accidental premature burial. I’ll also give a bit of advice for how to prevent it as well as why people are so afraid of being buried alive and people’s fear of it throughout history.

I’m not going to talk about premature burial as a form of capital punishment, its use by soldiers in war or for war crimes, or when it’s used by criminals like drug lords. I already talked a little bit about premature burial in my video on torture methods that I did awhile back. The production quality isn’t that great, but I think the script still holds up pretty well. You can check it out here.

So why are people so afraid of being buried alive? Well, I think it’s pretty obvious. Being buried alive is dangerous itself, and your chances of survival are pretty low. Assuming you’re buried in a coffin underground, you won’t last very long. I’ve read estimates as high as five hours and as low as one hour* before you suffocate. And if you’re claustrophobic like me, the experience becomes even worse to imagine. In fact, the fear of being buried alive has its own word: taphophobia.

And the reality of premature burial has existed as long as humanity. In Biblical times, people were wrapped in shrouds and their bodies placed in caves after they died so someone could easily check on them a few days later and make sure they were actually dead. (See: The story of Lazarus)

But the fear didn’t really start taking off until much more recently. The earliest recorded instances of this fear that I could find date back to the 1600’s. In her will, Princess Elizabeth of Orléans requested her body not be shrouded for 24 hours after she died and that her feet be cut with a razor.

The 1700’s and 1800’s brought even more odd requests. The famous Danish author Hans Christian Andersen carried a card that said “I am not really dead” when he travelled out of his native Denmark so foreign doctors wouldn’t accidentally declare him dead. (Andersen didn’t trust foreign doctors very much.) He also asked a friend of his to ensure his arteries were cut after he died. He already had liver cancer at this point and died two days after making this request, but I’m not sure if his wish was granted.

Composer Frédéric Chopin requested that his heart be cut out to ensure he was dead. Not only was this request granted, but it was kept preserved and studied over 150 years later. In an age where fear of disease caused people to bury bodies less than a day after the person’s death, George Washington requested that he not be buried until he’d been dead for two days. Washington died on December 14, 1799 and was buried three days later, so it looks like he got his wish as well.

And this fear wasn’t totally without merit or real world examples. Stories of people being presumed dead but waking up before their burial date back to ancient times. Death was usually determined when your heart stopped, and the people in charge of determining if a person was really dead were often family members — not doctors.

In the 1500’s and even later, a lot of of plague victims were buried alive. Not only was it difficult to tell if they had actually died, but if they did wake up, most of them couldn’t get up because they were buried in mass graves on top of piles of bodies. One story from this era tells of a piper who passed out drunk and was presumed dead, so he was put in one of these mass graves. When he woke up, he alerted others to his presence by playing his flute and managed to escape. You know, I used to play the clarinet when I was younger. Maybe I should brush up on my musical skills and start lugging my old clarinet with me everywhere — or at least request to be buried with it.

So let’s talk about some more stories of premature burial. One account says that the body of philosopher John Duns Scotus, who died in 1308, was later found outside his coffin. (Allegedly) Another story involves Christian theologian Thomas à Kempis, who died in 1471. His body was exhumed a few hundred years later when the Catholic church was considering canonizing him. But when they saw fingernail/scratch marks on the lid of his coffin, they decided not to make him a saint because they thought the scratch marks showed he was afraid of death — and saints shouldn’t be because they’re about to meet God in heaven. This is another story that is either not true or at least exaggerated.

A possible more legitimate account is that of Matthew Wall, who “died” in England in the 1500’s. At Matthew’s funeral, some of his pallbearers slipped on wet leaves and dropped his coffin. This must have woken Matthew up, because he knocked on the coffin lid and was let out. He lived another 24 years.

A popular legend in the town of Basingstoke in England tells of a woman named Alice Blunden. Back in 1674, Alice drank poppy water and passed out, appearing dead. She was pronounced dead by a doctor who used the “mirror method,” where you hold up a mirror to a person’s mouth and/or nose and see if it fogs up from their breath. (More on this method later.) Two days after Alice was buried, kids playing nearby started to hear a voice from the cemetery. They told their school headmaster, who didn’t believe them at first. But the next day, he went to the grave and heard the voice for himself. So later that day, Alice was exhumed. She was found alive, but battered and close to death, so she was left in the grave and a guard was sent to watch it. But it rained that night, so the guard peaced out and went to the bar. When the coffin was opened the next day, Alice was found dead. (You had one job, guard.)

The guard didn’t seem to face any consequences, but the doctor was put on trial for his role in her death. However, he was acquitted because this “mirror method” was considered legitimate at the time.

Another story from France is also more of a folk tale and doesn’t involve actual burial, but it’s too crazy to pass up sharing. A young man is forced into becoming a monk by his parents. One night he stays at an inn, and the innkeeper asks him to watch over the body of his recently dead daughter. The monk takes ”liberties with the corpse.” I will let you use your imagination there. Or not. Anyway, turns out the woman’s corpse wasn’t really a corpse, and when the monk comes back to the inn nine months later, he’s shocked to find not only that the woman is alive, but has a new baby. Once he puts two and two together, he confesses everything to the woman and her parents and agrees to marry her. Surprisingly, everyone accepts and…I guess they live happily ever after?

In 1740, Danish anatomist Jacques-Bénigne Winslow wrote a treatise that suggested some ways to tell if a person was really dead. His suggestions included: Putting onions, garlic and horse radish up the person’s nose, rubbing garlic on their lips and stimulating their skin with “whips and nettles.” If nothing happened, he proceeded to slice the corpse’s feet, put needles under their toenails, burn their feet or pour boiling wax on their forehead. Winslow was apparently paranoid about people being erroneously declared dead, as he once stated: “It is evidence from Experience, that many apparently dead, have afterwards proved themselves alive by rising from their shrouds, their coffins, and even from their graves.”

A few years later, a French doctor named Jean Jacques Bruhier came across Winslow’s treatise and started working on some writings of his own. He eventually published the Dissertation sur l’incertitude des signes de la mort. This roughly translates to Dissertation on the Uncertainty of the Signs of Death.

Bruhier’s work told stories of people who were buried alive — though many of them were exaggerated or flat out untrue. But the book was pretty popular and went through several editions. It might have also changed people’s perspectives on death and premature burial — especially in Germany, where the German translation did especially well. Bruhier’s advocacy for burial reform also including state run morgues staffed by doctors and watchmen. In fact, it was around this time that people in Europe started waiting twelve to 24 hours before burying bodies. Bruhier’s findings were questioned by some doctors, but there seemed to be at least plenty of interest in his work.

In the late 1700’s, Austrian doctor Johann Peter Frank, who had his own close brush with death, proposed the idea of “houses for the dead” in every city where bodies could be kept until they could be declared dead. May of these so-called “waiting mortuaries” were built in Germany and kept corpses out on display. In fact, you could walk through and view the corpses — all you had to do was pay a fee. However, as far as preventing premature burial, they didn’t do much. There are no documented cases of any corpses being revived the German facilities, and in similar buildings in places like Prague and Vienna, the number of people who were later revived was less than 1 percent.

Still, the stories of premature burial continued. In mid 1800’s Sweden, a story was collected by a medical practitioner about a young pregnant woman who died and was buried in a churchyard. Just hours after she was buried, one of the church caretakers started hearing groans from her grave. He thought it was a ghost, so he ran home and hid in his bed. (Again…you had one job, caretaker.) The next day, he told the “rector” (basically the church leader) about what had happened. After berating the caretaker for leaving (understandably so), the rector ordered the coffin to be exhumed. When church officials opened the coffin and saw the woman’s body, they realized she had given birth in the coffin. It’s not confirmed by the story, but I assume both mother and baby died.

There is actually a phenomenon called coffin birth, that happens when a pregnant woman dies and gases in her body cause her unborn child to be expelled from her body. It’s pretty rare and, as far as I could tell, always happens when the mother was actually dead.

By the 1800’s, lots of doctors were skeptical about how common premature burials really were. But the fear was widespread throughout the public.

In 1798, a German man named P.G. Pessler suggested people should be buried with a tube in their coffin. The tube should be attached to a rope that led to the church bell so the person could ring it if they woke up in their coffin. This idea was modified by several of his peers, and eventually snowballed into what are now known as “safety coffins.”

A model for one of the many "safety coffins."

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of models of safety coffins. Most of them had some sort of device for communicating with the outside world from inside the coffin. Some had ropes attached to a bell on the surface. Others had a flag or firecracker instead. Some even had food and water supplies, fans and alarms or breathing tubes.

And these safety coffins aren’t just things of the past. One model was patented as recently as 2015 and included a solar powered music player. Frankly, I’m not sure how this would potentially save someone who was buried alive, but maybe listening to music would provide the person some comfort in what would likely be their final hours. That is, assuming you could get sunlight underground…

To be fair, I’m not sure this particular coffin was designed to save someone from premature burial. But as you might be able to tell, most of these designs weren’t very practical. Very few actually had a permanent air supply, and some would set off a bell at the slightest movement of the corpse, even though parts of corpses tend to move around due to decomposition. Despite dozens of different models being patented, there’s no evidence anyone has ever been buried in a so-called “safety coffin.”

By the way, the phrase “saved by the bell” is thought to have come from these safety coffins, but that probably isn’t the case. It’s more likely that it came from boxing slang — a boxer who was about to lose a round was “saved” from defeat by a bell marking the end of the round.

As you can imagine, plenty of authors were capitalizing on the fear of premature burial at this time. We authors just love to talk about miserable things, don’t we? But the one remembered for it most today is, of course, Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe featured premature burial in several of his short stories — namely The Black Cat, The Cask of Amontillado and The Fall of the House of Usher. But the one where it’s on display the most prominently is unsurprisingly titled The Premature Burial.

Published in 1844, the first half or so of the story goes over several interesting anecdotes of people who were buried alive, though I doubt any of them are true. My personal favorite follows a wealthy French woman named Victorine Lafourcade. Victorine is pursued by a lower class journalist, but she rejects him to marry a banker. The banker treats her badly and, several years later, she dies and is buried in a normal, underground grave. After she’s buried, her old lover is still distraught about losing her, so he goes to her tomb to dig her up and um…cut off her hair to keep. (Yeah, that’s actually a thing that happens in this story.) But after digging her up and opening her coffin, he’s trying to “detach” her hair when her eyes open and he realizes she was buried alive.

The man takes his old lover back to his house and slowly nurses her back to health. When she’s fully recovered, she agrees to stay with this man who dug her up to take her hair and they move to America. Twenty years later, they return to France and her old husband tries to “make claim” to her, but a tribunal says he has no legal authority over her because of the amount of time that has passed. So I guess things work out for her? This story is a retelling of an old folk tale, usually referred to as the Two Young Lovers legend.

But onto the main story. The Premature Burial’s narrator suffers from a condition called catalepsy that causes people to go into trances and lose consciousness. Their bodies are often stiff and rigid and they appear dead, which obviously ups the chances of being buried alive. The narrator is so scared of premature burial, he’s afraid to go to sleep because he might wake up in a coffin. He even has the family vault remodeled to include things like easy opening from the inside, food and water right by the coffin and a bell from the roof to his hand. He also makes sure his coffin lid will be easy to open.

Unfortunately, our narrator wakes up one day believing he was, in fact, buried alive — with none of these things. He figures he was presumed dead while he was away from home and, of course, is in a panic. As it turns out, he wasn’t actually buried alive — it was all a hallucination, brought on by a series of strange coincidences. But after this incident, he’s able to overcome his fear of premature burial, as well as his catalepsy. If you want to read the story for yourself, you can find the text version here or listen to an audio version here.

Another popular legend that involves premature burial is known as the Lady with the Ring. There are several different versions dating all the way back to the 1300’s, but the most popular version seems to be the story of Margorie McCall.

Margorie McCall died of fever in her native Ireland in 1705 and was buried quickly due to that (likely unfounded) fear I mentioned earlier of corpses spreading disease. At the wake, Margorie had an expensive ring on her finger that her loved ones knew would make her a target for grave robbers. They tried to get the ring off, but due to bloating it wouldn’t budge. So Margorie and her ring were buried in Shankhill Graveyard in Lurgan in Northern Ireland.

But the next day, her loved ones’ fear came true, and grave robbers dug her up. They opened her coffin and saw the ring, but must have had the same problem with bloating as before because they decided to cut off her finger to get the ring. As they started cutting, Marjorie woke up and screamed. The robbers either dropped dead or ran, depending on the version. Margorie climbed out of the grave and walked home to her husband and children. In an early version of the story, the woman’s husband didn’t let her back in the house at first because he thought she was a ghost. In the Margorie McCall version, when her husband answered the door and saw her, he dropped dead too — or fainted, again depending on the version.

Margorie went on to remarry and have more children — one source even said she was having an affair before her presumed death and was already pregnant by her “unknown lover”. When she died for real years later, she was buried in the same plot she’d been buried in the first time — though other sources say her first husband was actually buried there.

There is a grave in Shankhill Graveyard for a Margorie McCall, complete with an engraving that reads “lived once, buried twice.” However, it’s not clear if this story is actually true. One source says there are no records of a Margorie McCall being buried in that cemetery. In a 2016 article, historian Jim Conway said the story is true and the records were lost due to a famine at the time. Frankly, I’m not sure about this one. There are multiple different versions of the story that were floating around for hundreds of years before this, which makes me think it’s more of a legend. Then again, the grave and inscription can’t be denied. So who knows.

Another, earlier version of this legend was recounted in “Premature Burial and How it May be Prevented”:

“In the year 1571, the wife of one of the magistrates of Cologne being interred with a valuable ring on one of her fingers, the grave-digger next night opened the grave in order to take it off, but we may readily suppose that he was in no small consternation when the supposed dead body squeezed his hand, and laid fast hold of him, in order to get out of her coffin. The thief, however, disengaging himself, made his escape with all expedition; and the lady, disentangling herself in the best manner she could, went home and knocked at her own door, where, after shivering in her shroud, after some delay she was admitted by the terror-stricken servants; and, being warmed and treated in a proper manner, completely recovered.”

So let’s talk about this book (I think it’s a book). “Premature Burial and How it May Be Prevented” was written by William Tebb, a member of the Royal Academy of Medical Sciences, and a doctor named Col. Edward Perry Vollum. It was published in 1896, the same year that Tebb co-founded the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial. It’s basically just what it sounds like — it lists reported instances of premature burial and ways to prevent it from happening. Tebb and Vollum wrote that things like cremation and avoiding hasty burial were great ways to prevent premature burial. The book also mentioned the “mirror” technique I talked about earlier, but said it wasn’t always reliable because there are instances where a person may temporarily stop breathing but they’re not actually dead. It also listed methods of premature burial prevention such as: Injecting substances into the skin, shock, artificial respiration, “auscultation” which involves listening to the heart or lungs for signs of life, and “the blister test” — putting boiling water up to the person’s skin to see if it blisters.

"Premature Burial and How It May be Prevented" was generally well liked by the public, but there were doctors who criticized it, saying it sensationalized premature burial and that Tebb knew nothing about medicine or physiology. But one of his predecessors in particular had an even darker idea.

In 1859, a Dr.von Röser conducted an experiment to see if people could really survive several days being buried alive, as some accounts had claimed. He buried several rats and mice alive in a coffin and dug it back up after a few days. As it turns out, the animals survived by eating each other (though I’m not sure how they got air). Dr. von Röser tried the same thing with a singular dog, who died after just three hours.

By the early 1900’s, the fear of premature burial had started to wane. The London Society of the Prevention of Premature Burial was active for a few years, but started to decline after the end of World War I in 1918. I couldn’t find much more about them, other than a short Wikipedia article, so I assume they eventually went the way of the proverbial dodo.

Still, accounts of premature burial continued. In North Carolina in 1885, a man only named as “Jenkins” supposedly died of a fever. Despite skepticism that he was really dead, he was buried the next day. A week later, body was exhumed to be reburied in a family plot. When the coffin was opened make sure the body was in good enough condition to be hauled the 20 miles to the new plot, his hair had been pulled from his head and there were fingernail scratch marks on the inside of the coffin. The body was also lying face down. Jenkins’s body was reburied, but his family remained convinced he hadn’t really been dead at first, only unconscious, and had been buried alive.

Another story out of Ontario the following year told of a girl named “Collins.” It’s not clear how long Collins was buried but, much like Jenkins, her body was exhumed so it could be moved to another plot. Upon examination of her body, her shroud was torn, her knees drawn to her chin, one arm was under her head and “her features bore evidence of dreadful torture.”

This photo is believed to be of Essie Dunbar, but it's not confirmed.

But one of the more popular stories of premature burial from around this time is that of Essie Dunbar. Essie was presumed dead after an epileptic fit in 1915 and set to be buried the next day. The funeral was carried out as usual and Essie’s body was buried. A few minutes later, her sister arrived at the gravesite, asking for the body to be exhumed so she could see her sister one last time. No version of the story I could find explained why the sister arrived so late, but her wish was granted and Essie’s coffin was dug back up. When the lid was opened, Essie sat up and smiled. The three pastors at the funeral all fell back into the grave from shock, thinking she was a ghost. Essie was treated with suspicion for the rest of her life, with people thinking she was a ghost, but the story kept growing and was told and retold until she died for real in 1955. (Other sources said 1961 or 1962, and the validity of this story in general is doubted.)

But one confirmed case of premature burial happened just a couple of decades later. French teenager Angelo Hayes was just 19 when he “died” in a motorcycle accident in 1937. Angelo’s injuries were so bad, his parents weren’t even allowed to see his body. His insurance company was suspicious of his “accidental death” so his body was exhumed two days after he was buried for an investigation. But upon inspection, doctors were stunned to discover his body was still warm. As it turns out, Angelo was never really dead, but likely in a coma that slowed his breathing to the point that doctors couldn’t find a pulse. This is probably also how he survived underground for so long — his body needed much less oxygen and didn’t use it all up in the few hours that most people would have. Angelo went on to become a mini celebrity and even invented his own safety coffin before dying — for real this time — in 2008 at the age of 90.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, stories of premature burial seemed to wane even more. Most of the ones I found were really of people who were presumed dead but woke up in a morgue or even at their own funerals. But I did find a couple of cases in the 2000’s.

One involves a woman in Greece who supposedly died of cancer in 2014. After her funeral, kids playing just outside the cemetery heard a woman calling for help…underneath the ground. They called police and the grave was ordered exhumed but, sadly, they couldn’t get to the woman in time. She’d woken back up shortly after her funeral and died underground of suffocation. Her family was planning a lawsuit, but I couldn’t find any updates on it.

In another case out of Brazil, Rosângela Almeida dos Santos was thought to have died of septic shock in 2018. Her relatives said the body was still warm, but she was buried anyway. About a week and a half later, people in the area of the cemetery claimed to hear screams coming from her coffin. Rosângela was exhumed and found to have wounds on her forehead and the nails inside her coffin had been loosened, as if she’d tried to escape. She also hadn’t decomposed very much — sadly she was already actually dead at this point. This story has been disputed by another source, saying her body may not have decomposed as fast as usual due to antibiotics she’d been given. The same article claims Rosângela’s brother said the reported wounds to her body weren’t real. So, again, I’m not sure of the validity of this story.

The last story I found is a bit different. In 2020, a construction worker in Thirumangalam in India entered a 10 foot trench that caved in and buried him alive. His co-workers and, later, emergency services, tried to revive him, but he sadly ended up dying.

But with all these stories, you may be wondering: Just how common is premature burial?

Believe it or not, even at the height of so-called “taphophobia,” being buried alive was pretty rare. As you may have seen throughout this video, many of the reports were exaggerated or made up entirely. And it’s also difficult to tell if someone was actually buried alive. For starters, there’s not always a good excuse to exhume their body — especially if they were buried underground in a traditional cemetery and not a family vault. And by the time they are exhumed, they could be too decomposed to tell. Many corpses were presumed to have been buried alive because they were found years later in unusual positions — but a lot of these positions could be chalked up to normal movement of the body during decomposition or the body being moved by grave robbers. Doctors would also be reluctant to admit they made a mistake and declared a patient dead when they weren’t, or to call out their colleagues for doing the same. So alleged or suspected cases of premature burial are hard to prove.

And premature burial is even more rare today. Modern methods and tests to see if a person is really dead include things like EEG’s, which show brain activity, and administering atropine, which checks for heart activity. Sometimes a light will be shined in the person’s eyes to see if their pupils react. In order to have a person pronounced dead, multiple tests have to be administered, and multiple doctors have to confirm the death. And even if you made your way to the morgue somehow still alive, most people today are embalmed, which makes being buried alive pretty much impossible. Also, funeral directors and medical examiners today can absolutely tell the difference between a living person and a dead one. By the way, corpses don’t bleed — so if you were, say, cut open for an autopsy or nicked during the pre-embalming shave, blood would be a dead giveaway. No pun intended.

But let’s say it still happened. Against all odds, you were falsely declared dead, requested not to be embalmed, and woke up in a box six feet under. How could you possibly escape in time? I did find a few different sources that gave pretty similar tips on how to survive a premature burial.

First off, don’t panic. You don’t have much oxygen, and you want to conserve what you do have to buy as much time as possible. Take deep breaths and hold them as long as you can.

If you’re in a metal coffin, there’s not much you can do from here, other than scream with your lips against the coffin wall to alert passers-by. If you can find anything hard in your pockets, use that to tap the SOS signal against the coffin lid: Three quick taps, three slow taps, three more quick taps.

If you’re in a wooden coffin, your chances are slightly higher. Find where the coffin’s boards combine, because that’s the place it will be most likely to break. Take your shirt off to the point that it’s over your neck. Break through the coffin and let the dirt flow in underneath you as you continue to widen the hole. Once you’ve made a big enough opening, start moving up, using your shirt over your head for an oxygen bubble. Once you’ve wriggled up enough, you can break out onto the surface — especially if you’ve recently been buried, since the dirt will still be loose.

I really have no idea how reliable this advice is, or what your odds are of completing these steps successfully. But hopefully, if nothing else, they’ll provide you some comfort if you’re as afraid of this happening as I am.

Before I go, I want to mention the book Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of our Most Primal Fear by Dr. Jan Bondeson. I got some of my information from this book, and tons of other sources I used mentioned it as well. As far as I could find, it’s one of the most comprehensive books about premature burial and taphophobia out there. You can get your own copy here.*

So that’s all I have for you today on people who were buried alive by mistake and the history of this particular fear. As terrifying as this concept is to me, I was relieved to learn it was still pretty rare even hundreds of years ago, before science and medicine were as advanced as they are now. Still, I’d like to be buried with my cell phone, just in case.

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