Fear can take all shapes and sizes. Fear can become a phobia and/or an obsession if left unaddressed. Fears usually begin in childhood and will manifest itself in many ways – hysterical crying, freezing up, physical and emotional outbursts. But there are those rare instances when the fear will begin and manifest itself in adulthood because of a personal trauma. For instance, there was a woman in the United States who after a debilitating car accident could not make right hand turns. This fear became an obsessive phobia for her as she would study maps for hours just to find a way to reach her destination without having to make a right hand turn. During the late 1200’s humankind shared a common fear which for some became an obsessive phobia – the fear of being buried alive or most commonly known as premature burial. The fear of being prematurely buried alive is humankind’s oldest fear.
Those in the medical profession during these time periods were not as skilled or knowledgeable as they are today. Barbers and surgeons were frequently one and the same which aided in the misdiagnosis of death. However, it should be noted that evidence of “misdiagnosis” is difficult to document because there were very few details printed on death certificates, a doctor did not need to be present to declare someone deceased – they just needed to be told that someone died and that’s what they attested to on the death certificate, the pallbearers/funeral processions were not smooth frequently banging the coffins on a wall or hitting a pothole, and the bodily functions of the corpse can make it appear as if the person had awakened and struggled to get out of the coffin.
Although the fear of premature burial reached its height in the 19th century in Europe it stretches back to ancient times.
• The grammarian and metaphysician, Johannes Duns Scotus died in Cologne in 1308. When the vault his corpse resided in was opened later he was found lying outside the coffin.
• Thomas A Kempis died in 1471 and was denied canonization because splinters were found embedded under his nails. Anyone aspiring to be a saint would not fight death if he found himself buried alive (Wilkins, 21)!
• Ann Green was hanged by the neck until dead – or so they thought – in 1650 at Oxford. She was found to be alive after being placed in a coffin for burial. One kindly gentleman attempted to assist her back to the land of the dead by raising his foot and stamping her chest and stomach with such severe force that he only succeeded in completely reviving her. She lived a long life and bore several children (Wilkins, 21).
• Premature burial did not affect only the poor but the wealthy and politically important. Emperor Zenon was buried alive although some historians feel it was a deliberate “premature” burial spearheaded by his wife (Wilkins, 22)
• A young priest was in the pulpit one morning when he was seized with giddiness. He soon lost the power of speech and sunk to the floor. Although he could not see he could hear voices as they prepared him for burial. It wasn’t until a familiar voice spoke to him that he was able to rise. He was in the pulpit the next day – business as usual (Wilkins, 23)!
• Virginia Macdonald was buried in a Brooklyn cemetery in 1850. Her mother was so persistent that she had been buried alive that authorities finally relented and raised her coffin. The lid was opened to find that her delicate hands had been badly bitten and she was lying on her side.
• When the Les Innocents cemetery in Paris, France was moved from the center of the city to the suburbs the number of skeletons found face down convinced the lay people and several doctors that premature burial was very common (Wilkins, 25).
There are many other stories of men, women, and children suspected of being buried alive when their coffins were later opened and their fingers and hands had been chewed, faces distorted in fear, and their bodies not just lying spilled onto the floor but several feet away sitting in a corner huddled in fear. It is believed that these people were rare instances.
Another common factor of premature burial was plaques and epidemics of small pox and cholera to name a few. It has been reported that during the black plaque people who were pronounced deceased could be heard crying for help within the heap of dead bodies. Usually, these people were left as they were and buried in mass graves – no one had the stomach to dig them out and it would only delay work schedules which were already overwhelming.
Beginning in the 1900’s funerals and burials were delayed to ensure that the deceased was in fact deceased! Prior to the 1900’s there were a couple of books that people referred to determine whether or not someone was actually dead. French physician Jacques Benigne Winslow published “The Uncertainty of the Signs of Death.” Dr. Winslow was what most termed an expert in the field as he had claimed to be placed in a coffin and prepared for burial twice. His thesis was a body can be called a corpse only when signs of putrefaction were obvious. In other words keep the loved one out of the ground until the stench of decomposing flesh removed all doubt (Wilkins, 16).
Montague Summers wrote “The Vampire: His Kith and Kin in 1928 where he drew parallels between premature burial and the rising of the dead. I’m sure he was one that insisted upon the staking of the heart or some other form of corpse mutilation to ensure death.
With all this information it was a good thing that people in the early 1900’s did not hurry to bury their dead. Micah Hibble was diagnosed as dead three times before the Grim Reaper actually kept him!
There were diseases and conditions that gave the appearance of death to even the healthiest of people. When Catalepsy occurs it is the immobility of the muscles, the body takes on a waxy flexibility, and can be molded into bizarre positions. This condition occurs usually whenever hysteria, hypnotism or schizophrenia (without medicine) is present. Fainting spells, falling into trances or comas were often misdiagnosed as deceased. A sentient corpse is someone who is aware of their surroundings but can do nothing to alert people to what is going on. This is an interesting phenomenon and has been known to occur during autopsies.
There have been a number of inventions to confirm the diagnosis of death. There was a society of men and women called Society for the Prevention of People Being Buried Alive. These people encouraged the slow process of burial – Duke Wellington died in 1928 but was not buried for over two months! Crowbars and shovels were buried with the loved ones so they could dig themselves out of the grave – I’m not sure how they were to maneuver the tools …..
The wealthy had more options of course. Some chose special capsules that would be penetrated by nails as the lid of the coffin was lowered and sealed releasing a deadly poisonous gas. Others chose to purchase Bateson’s Belfry which was an iron bell mounted on the lid of the coffin just above the head. The bell could be easily rung with a pull cord inside the coffin. The smallest tremor would set the bell ringing. There is no record of anyone using this device successfully!
Mr. Bateson so feared premature burial that he doused himself with linseed oil and set himself on fire (www.members.tripod.com!
There were other devices used over time – a telephone, loudspeaker, security system that could be operated from inside the vaults, and people even left behind food and water just in case!
Death is a touchy subject for many people without the added fear of premature burial or being sentient during an autopsy. No one wants to awaken in a crypt or on a table with their body flayed open for the world to see. However, that does happen. Although pronounced dead by three doctors and almost two hours in a noose, a young man was found to have a heart beat. Doctors present opened his chest and found the heart was indeed beating with force! After five hours and his chest still open to prodding fingers his heart finally quit beating and he died.
Not only do people fear premature burial but Hollywood has made a fortune from the topic! Edgar Allen Poe not only wrote “Premature Burial” but it has made it to Broadway and on the movie screen. In 1963 A Comedy of Terrors took what was a horrifying subject just a short time ago and turned it into something funny, starring Vincent Price, Boris Karlof, Basil Rathbone, and Peter Lorre
I’ve just touched on some of the concerns know about the fear that humankind keeps tucked back in the dark recess of their mind but it is less likely that one would be buried alive now days with the legal requirements for preparing a dead body. The fear of premature burial has been replaced with waking on the autopsy table!
Not only did people have to fear being misdiagnosed but they had to fear the grave robbers, resurrectionists, and opportunists who saw a profit. Once a corpse had been identified for burial, God help the person because if they were not dead at the time of burial in most cases they were murdered. More on that later!
Wikins, Robert. A History of Mans Obsession and Fears. Barnes & Noble, 1990