The concept of death can be difficult and often terrifying to contemplate, but for some the thought of being buried alive is more unnerving and it can become a pathological phobia – or taphophobia, to use the technical term, from the Greek taphos meaning grave or tomb.
Prior to modern day medical practices, this fear had some grounding. Before the 18th century, and specifically before resuscitation methods were acknowledged, a diagnosis of death was less reliable often being undertaken by family and in times of plagues, very rapidly. It was quite a regular occurrence for people to be buried with a horn to summon others, should this happen.
In the late 1700s ‘houses for the dead’ became popular in Germany and Austria. Effectively precursors to modern day morgues, they housed the dead for a sufficient period of time to ensure they were actually dead. However, there is little evidence to suggest that this fad saved very many lives, but it did provide a new form of entertainment to people who wished to pay a fee to walk through the houses and view bodies on display!
The safety coffin also became a popular method of calming people’s fears of being buried alive. These engineered contraptions could include food tubes, pulley systems to ring alarm bells, trap doors and padding for greater comfort whilst the victim awaited rescue.
A Victorian obsession
In the Victorian era, although advances in medicine started to dramatically reduce the frequency of occurrences, tales of being buried alive captured the morbid fascinations of the populous, fuelled by gothic horror stories like those of Edgar Alan Poe who wrote a book about a man with taphophobia. Such was the public’s fear of being buried alive that a plethora of inventions to prevent it were created. Medics also created new and often macabre methods to test for any signs of life such as manipulating the tongue, cutting off a finger or toe or burning skin to see if it blistered.
Fears of the famous
Even the famous went to great lengths to ensure they didn’t meet this fate. The composer, Chopin, instructed in his will that his heart be cut out to ensure he was dead. Alfred Nobel and the author Hans Christian Andersen ensured that their arteries were cut, whilst George Washington went for the option of being laid out for three days to ensure he did not revive.
A French cause celebre
In the 20th century, although advances in medical practice made it far less likely, stories of individuals who had been buried alive appeared from time to time. The case of Angelo Hayes in France made him a celebrity. In 1937, at the age of 19, he was involved in a motorcycle crash that injured him so badly his parents were not allowed to see him and, feeling no pulse, the doctor at the scene declared him dead. However, two days after he was buried his body was exhumed on the request of an insurer investigating the accident. The exhumers found Hayes’ body still warm (he had been in a coma which helped him to survive on diminishing levels of oxygen) and after multiple surgeries he made a full recovery. He traded on his notoriety by touring the country with a security coffin he invented, complete with toilet, library and a food locker.
The modern reality
So how likely is it today to be prematurely declared dead? Although a small number of stories still circulate to this day of people being buried alive, the reality is that this is more likely to happen in less developed countries where medical practices and procedures are less robust. In most countries, multiple tests have to be carried out in order to pronounce a person dead and several medical experts need to be involved, so the chances of any mistakes being made are negligible.
For further background into mankind’s obsession with being buried alive, read Jan Bondeson’s Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear