Monday, January 12, 2009

Buried Alive

Researching for a former post on euphemisms and misnomers relating to death slang piqued my interest in the fear of being buried alive.

It seems that in the Victorian era, this fear was wide spread. Edgar Allen Poe wrote a story entitled "The Premature Burial", 1st published in Dollar Newspaper in 1844. It was a first hand account of a man with an intense fear of being buried alive, who actually has this happen. His story tells tales of people who've been buried alive. However unlikely these stories were in truth, the fear was very real...and perhaps for Edgar Allen Poe himself.

Besides literature themes abounding with this fear during the mid to late 1800's, the patent offices showed a spike of "Safety Coffins" during this time. They are all fairly similar, providing some way to either signal or escape the coffin. There's an article here listing all the patent descriptions with illustrations linked.

One of my favorites is this device by John Kirchbaum, from 1882. There is a bar actually placed in the corpse's hands when they are buried- so that if they awake they can turn the bar which turns a pointer in a glass box at the surface. I can just picture the grave yard attendant walking the rows looking to see if these pointers were now pointing to different numbers. The patent states that the device is used for “persons buried under doubt of being in a trance.”

There were editorials written in this time discussing the topic as well. In an 1893 issue of Science a man writes a personal account of an accidental burial entitled "Buried Alive: One's Sensations and Thoughts". Although not someone who was pronounced dead, but accidentally fell into a grave, readers would surely have walked away with this frightening experience on their mind.

In 1998 JAMA reprinted an editorial from 1898 that spoke about premature burial. The point of the editorial was to debunk the myths, helping us believe that the fear was public enough to lead a medical journal to address the issue. Part of the reassurance was that the average coffin had so little oxygen, that asphyxia would precede any return to consciousness. How comforting.

In case you thought this issue was long gone, consider an article published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine in 2006 entitled "Buried Alive; an Unusual Problem at the End of Life". In this case report the medical team dealt with a woman who was so frightened by the thought of being prematurely buried, that she requested immediate amputation of her hands at death, to ensure a "true" death. Read the article to find out the solution to this demand by family here.

While some fears of being buried alive may still exist, the height of social anxiety in this matter seemed to fade in the early 1900's as the practice of embalming became more widespread and technology began to provide methods marking the cessation of life.

Moorehead, WK "Buried Alive, -One's sensations and thoughts" Science Feb.3, 1893. Vol. 21:522 (p61)
The Journal of the American Medical Association (1898;30:273-274, reprinted JAMA 1998;279(3):182)
Polizzotto, MN et al "Buried Alive: an Unusual Problem at the End of Life" Journal of Palliative Care. Summer(2006). Vol 22:2(p117)

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1 Responses to “Buried Alive”

Dr. Pam said...
January 13, 2009 at 4:38 AM

It's interesting how this fear has been pervasive over time. Mausoleums helped those with an aversion to burial underground avoid the need. The phrase "Saved by the bell" arose from the bell-type alarm of the safety coffins--one of the jobs of those managing cemeteries was to keep vigil at the graves of the newly buried to watch for the bell being activated.