A Brief History of Being Buried Alive

What happens when you're six feet under with no way out? 
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What happens when you're six feet under with no way out? 
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Imagine you have a rare disorder, not unlike epilepsy, that causes your heart to slow to a near standstill. Imagine you black out one day and wake up in darkness in a small box, the smell of pine and cement heavy in your nostrils. You scream, but no one can hear you . You push at the top of the box, but it's not budging. Your breathing quickens. It slowly dawns on you — you've been buried alive. 

And you're far from the first person who this has ever happened to. 

The Mummies of Mexico

Like all of the 119 mummies in El Museo de las Mumias, Ignacia Aguilar fell victim to a cholera epidemic that swept Guanajuato, Mexico in 1833. The deceased were buried quickly to prevent the spread of disease in above ground mausoleums. Twenty years later, the local government disinterred some of the bodies and discovered they'd been naturally mummified. Today, the mummies are on display in the dimly lit museum's glass cases, where they stand upright against a wall.

But the story of one mummy, named Ignacia, is terrifying. Her hands are balled together above her heart. Her left elbow points downward. At first glance, her head appears to be resting on her elevated right arm. Upon closer inspection, Ignacia's teeth are dug into the forearm. Fingernail scratches run jagged in all directions across her forehead, and what little of her mouth is visible beneath the right arm is caked with dried blood. Her body was discovered face down in its coffin. No doubt about it. Ignacia Aguilar was buried alive.

Scientists speculate the average person can survive between one and 18 hours in a modern coffin, depending on body size.

Records indicate that Ignacia was epileptic and suffered from a rare concurrent disorder that lowered her heart rate so much it seemed not to beat at all. Imagine the young girl waking up, caught between a limited air supply and eternity amidst the scent of pine and cement. Scientists speculate the average person can survive between one and 18 hours in a modern coffin, depending on body size. It's impossible to guess how long tiny Ignacia in a 19th century mausoleum held out. However long it took, it's difficult to fathom a worse way to go. Perhaps being flayed by Soviet infantry.

Live Burial as Punishment

Since antiquity, premature burial has been employed as a means of capital punishment in various nations. In ancient Rome, Vestal Virgins who broke their vows of celibacy were immured in small caves. Ditto for rapists of virgins. In Middle Age Germany, live burial was reserved for women who committed infanticide. In medieval Italy, remorseless murderers were buried alive, headfirst, with their feet sticking above ground. Under 13th century Danish law, live burial was the execution of choice for female thieves. Male thieves were beheaded, which is, of course, preferable.

Women who killed their husbands in feudal Russia were buried alive in a sacred killing site known as The Pit. It's said that the Druid St. Oran offered to be buried alive as a sacrifice in order to banish the devil from meddling with the construction of a new abbey. Sometime later, his still-living body was dug up, but when Oran spoke of visiting an afterlife without heaven or hell, he was reburied for good.

There are numerous modern examples of mass live burials during wartime. Japanese soldiers buried Chinese POWs at Nanking. Nazis interred shtetl elders in Belarus and Ukraine. In the Killing Fields. During the Great Leap Forward. Last year, ISIS militants buried groups of Yazidi women and children alive in Iraq.

Horrible deaths all. But something about the accidental premature burial strikes even greater terror, perhaps because it's an equal opportunity killer. It renders one utterly powerless, and features the element of surprise. The occasional incident of a breathing body tumbling from a coffin dropped by some hapless pallbearer, or a screaming corpse on the embalming table, put some degree of fear concerning premature burial into the ether since at least the 1st century A.D. The only notable recorded case prior to the 19th century was philosopher John Duns Scotus, whose body was found outside his coffin upon the reopening of his tomb. However, beginning in the late 18th century, the fear became more widespread and peaked in the 1890's, when Italian psychiatrist Enrico Morselli gave it a name: Taphephobia.

George Washington willed that his body was not to be buried for two days following his death, just in case. A group of Victorians organized The Society for the Prevention of People Being Buried Alive in 1896. A number of “safety coffins” were invented in the l880's. One, patented in 1882 by U.S. inventor J.G. Krichbaum, featured a periscope that could be opened from within the coffin in order to supply air and signal that an error had been made. In 1885, The New York Times reported that one “Jenkins” of Buncombe County was discovered turned on his side in his coffin, and all of his hair was ripped from his scalp.

A year later the paper of record reported on a Canadian girl named “Collins” who was found in her coffin with her knees tucked against her chin. South Carolinian Julia Legare was placed in the family crypt in 1852. When her brother died 15 years later, the crypt was reopened, and the remains of Julia were found in a pile at the foot of the entrance. As late as 1895 there are reports of people being discovered alive in the morgue. One of the happier cases concerns Eleanor Markham, a 22-year-old upstate New York woman who was heard banging on the roof of her coffin as it was pulled from the hearse in 1894. Her Doctor rushed to her aid and said, “Hush child. You are all right. It is a missive easily rectified.”

Estimates of how commonly people were prematurely buried in the last century prior vary widely. In 1905, reformer William Tebb compiled 219 accounts of near-live burial, 149 of actual live burials, and 10 cases of accidental live dissection on the autopsy table.

Why do report of live burial seem to accelerate toward the end of the latter century? The answer is as phantasmagoric as the 19th century itself.

The Live-Burial Epidemic

Why, though, do the reports of premature burial, aside from Scotus, not begin to appear regularly until the late 18thand early 19th centuries, and why do they seem to accelerate toward the end of the latter century? The answer is as phantasmagoric as the 19th century itself, that confluence of scientific discovery, the rise of mass journalism and the prophetic tendencies of Gothic literature. The ground of that century featured a strange soil sprouting new anxieties from the moribund world historical.

The disease that killed Ignacia Aguilar simultaneously increased and exposed the prevalence of premature burial. Cholera first spread from India to Russia in 1817, and shortly thereafter followed trade routes to Europe and the United States. Germ theory was neither credited nor widely known, but by this time there was a general understanding that disease was communicable through contact with the dead. During the cholera epidemics of the 19th century, from England to Guanajuato, the general order was for rapid burial, often in mass graves. On occasion, between pronouncement and the sod, a body was found displaying greater or lesser signs of sentience.

In 1854, physician John Snow mapped cholera cases in central London, observing high concentrations of infection near a water pump that was polluted with fecal matter. Government officials found his suggestion that the disease was caused by fecal-oral contact “too depressing” and the theory was dismissed. After the experiments of Louise Pasteur, German physician Robert Koch finally formulated a system for identifying the microorganisms that cause certain diseases, including cholera and tuberculosis in 1884. Koch's postulates triggered a fervent autopsy craze in the Western academies. Whether sanctioned or extralegal, disinterment by men of noble reason abounded in the last two decades of the century, which explains some of those horrific tomb discoveries mentioned previously.

The Persistence of Taphephobia

In part, taphephobia is a symbolic internalization of a dying God. The publication of Darwin's “The Origin of Species” in 1859 dismantled the Vatican and Church of England's cosmology – the static hierarchy of all His creations - and with it the certainty of a peaceful afterlife.

Rising literacy rates and the patenting of Koenig and Bauer's double-sided steam printing press in 1810 revolutionized the newspaper and book industries, popularizing macabre stories of premature burial. Edgar Allan Poe, above all, capitalized on the phobia and institutionalized it as a trope of Gothic lit. Three of his greatest short stories, “The Premature Burial,” “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Cask of Amontillado” center on premature burials, and are responsible for fueling the phobia with visceral expressiveness. In “The Premature Burial,” the protagonist describes his unrelenting anxiety over the title subject, then inevitably wills it to being. In the latter two stories, premature burial becomes a kind of trespass against what's supposed to be impossible, against the world of the living and the world of the dead. Here is a taste of the horror when what was supposed to be buried – whether bodies or information - becomes known.

taphephobia (noun taph·e·pho·bia \ˌtafēˈfōbēə\):  fear of being buried alive

What's fascinating about these three Poe tales is how prescient they are of the theories on taphephobia later introduced by Sigmund Freud. In his 1919 essay on the uncanny, Freud describes the prevalence of taphephobia among his patients as a “transformation of another phantasy which had originally nothing terrifying about it at all, but was qualified by a certain lasciviousness – the phantasy, I mean, of intra-uterine existence.”

In other words, the departed are like recollections of the womb. They should remain in the dirt, the subconscious. When we imagine our own premature burial, our womb memories wreak havoc on our consciousness. Like cognitive dissonance forged by a phallus thrust into the anterior cingular cortex, premature burial violates the division between life and death that allows Western minds to move their impermanent bodies through daily routines...as opposed to screaming their way to the sanitarium. Extrapolating Freudian, premature burial is a perfect symbol for the exposure of the subterranean, the terror of fresh knowledge, whether it be repressed desire, doubt and anxiety over religious or scientific faith, or profound shifts in the political paradigm. In short, the zeitgeist of the taphephobia era.

Medical advances and changes in funerary custom have nearly eradicated incidents of accidental premature burial in the 21st century. The phobia remains for many, of course, but not on the level a cultural epidemic. But if ever you'd like to experience the gravity of deprivation and existential terror that plagued the Victorian psyche, it can be easily done atop a dusty hill in Guanajuato, where the bodies of the dead stand half-clothed in tattered rags before the beyond.

Illustration by Cun Shi