Burials are the ultimate farewell to our mortal selves, a chance to rest forever. That is, unless you consider the chilling possibility of being buried alive — a fear that has haunted our imaginations for centuries.
Urban legends, books, and even spine-tingling horror movies have looked into the concept. Edgar Allan Poe, the master of horror short stories, was so obsessed with it that he wrote the very unsettling “Premature Burial.”
But these are not just fictional tales. Throughout history, there have been real instances of people being buried alive — each more horrifying than the last.
The Uncertain Certainty of Death in the Past
Before the advancements in modern medicine, doctors had a hard time telling the difference between death, comas, paralysis, and catalepsy, the signs of life we now consider essential — heartbeat, brain activity, respiratory function — were not easily detectable with the limited medical tools of the past.
To pronounce somebody dead, 19th-century doctors relied on things they could observe — loss of consciousness, stillness, absence of pulse, and the onset of rigor mortis. These methods were far from foolproof, however.
In addition, a lot of people died at home and were “pronounced dead” not by doctors but by family members who simply believed the person had died. With no proper confirmation system in place, there’s no way to know just how many of those people found themselves in a horror story out of Poe’s imagination.
To avoid terrible surprises, some hospitals in London began implementing the use of mortuaries, where dead bodies were held for days waiting for signs of decomposition as a confirmation that the person was truly dead. If you had visited the hospitals back then, you would have noticed a large number of flowers — an attempt to mask the smell of rotting human flesh.
Bells and Whistles: The Rise of Safety Coffins
By the late 1700s, taphophobia (the fear of being buried alive) was so widespread, people started coming up with new ways to prevent it.
Enter the safety coffin.
Safety coffins were outfitted with special mechanisms that somebody buried alive could use to alert a passerby. The earlier ones consisted of just a string tied to the deceased’s finger, which when pulled would ring a bell above ground. While there’s no evidence the bell coffins ever saved any lives, you can’t blame people for trying, right?
The first official safety coffin design was the one built for Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick before his death in 1792. The Duke himself requested a coffin with a window to allow light in, an air tube for ventilation, and a lock that could be opened from the inside. When he was eventually laid to rest in the family vault, he had keys with him in case he needed to escape. He never used them.
Despite their widespread popularity, the effectiveness of safety coffins remains debatable. Critics of the time questioned their practicality, pointing out that limited air supply would likely make it impossible for the prematurely buried to even attempt an escape.
Premature Burials & Chilling Chronicles
A haunting trip into the past reveals a handful of unsettling tales that, through a macabre combination of bad luck and medical misunderstanding, ended in premature burials.
It was February 1884 when Anna Hockwalt suddenly passed away when attending her brother’s wedding. A doctor was summoned to check on her and she was declared dead on the spot due to a “sympathetic palpitation of the heart.” Anna was hastily buried but friends soon started to question her death.
When the family eventually dug up her grave, they discovered Anna’s body was flipped over, her fingers bitten to the bone, and her hands full of hair. It was clear that she had suffered the unthinkable — being buried alive.
Similarly chilling is the tale of Philomele Jonetre, who was assumed dead in 1867 after contracting cholera. Her grieving family buried her within hours to avoid the spread of the disease — only to have a gravedigger hear Philomele thumping against her casket cover for help hours later. Philomele was promptly dug up and taken to a doctor but she was pronounced dead – for the second time – the following day and buried again.
For a bit of a happier ending, there’s the story of Tom Guerin. Back in the mid-1800s, Ireland was going through the Great Famine, a period of starvation and disease that would eventually kill over 1 million people. Amid so much devastation, the dead often had to be buried as quickly as possible, without seeing a priest or a doctor to confirm the death.
This was the case for three-year-old Tom, who had been hastily buried in a shallow mass grave. There are several theories on how Tom was found, but the most popular one seems to be that a gravedigger accidentally struck his legs with a spade and realized he was still alive. This would explain why Tom’s legs were broken when he was dug up. Tom had a permanent handicap after the ordeal, but he lived for another 50 years and even became a poet.
In 1937, 19-year-old Frenchman Angelo Hays had a major motorcycle accident that resulted in serious head and face injuries — Injuries so extensive that he was soon declared dead and buried three days later.
When an insurance company became suspicious about his death – Angelo’s father had just recently taken out life insurance for his son – they asked to exhume the body. Only to find out Angelo’s body was still warm. We’re not entirely sure of what happened, but it’s possible that Angelo was simply in a comma so was able to survive on very little oxygen.
Regardless, swift medical intervention ensured his recovery, and he went on to live for many more years. He even invented his very own security coffin packed with “a small oven, refrigerator, and a hi-fi cassette player” and toured country fairs showing it off.
More recently, Irish construction worker Mike Meaney had his very own experience being six feet under — except his was voluntary. Meaney was looking for a bit of notoriety when in 1968 decided he wanted to break the record for “the longest time being buried alive.”
So on 21 February 1968, under the watchful eye of the press and thousands of curious spectators, he was buried under seven feet of soil. For 61 days, Meaney ate breakfast, did partial exercises lying down to keep his muscles active, read books, and mostly slept — all inside his “cozy” coffin. He was finally “brought back to life” in April to the cheers of those present and Irish bands playing happy songs in the background.
By Diana Bocco, contributor for Ripleys.com