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Buried Alive!

An Urban Legend

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As told by Emily...

My great-great grandmother, ill for quite some time, finally passed away after lying in a coma for several days. My great-great grandfather was devastated beyond belief, as she was his one true love and they had been married over 50 years. They were married so long it seemed as if they knew each other's innermost thoughts.

After the doctor pronounced her dead, my great-great grandfather insisted that she was not. They had to literally pry him away from his wife's body so they could ready her for burial.

Now, back in those days they had backyard burial plots and did not drain the body of its fluids. They simply prepared a proper coffin and committed the body (in its coffin) to its permanent resting place. Throughout this process, my great-great grandfather protested so fiercely that he had to be sedated and put to bed. His wife was buried and that was that.

That night he woke to a horrific vision of his wife hysterically trying to scratch her way out of the coffin. He phoned the doctor immediately and begged to have his wife's body exhumed. The doctor refused, but my great-great grandfather had this nightmare every night for a week, each time frantically begging to have his wife removed from the grave.

Finally the doctor gave in and, together with local authorities, exhumed the body. The coffin was pried open and to everyone's horror and amazement, my great-great grandmother's nails were bent back and there were obvious scratches on the inside of the coffin.


Analysis: Shades of Edgar Allan Poe! It's a fact that once upon a time, before modern embalming techniques were in widespread use, on rare occasions people were found to have been buried alive, a circumstance that could not have been pleasant for anyone concerned, least of all the poor souls who woke up six feet under.

Here's one grisly example of a real-life case of premature burial, as reported in the New York Times on January 18, 1886:

BURIED ALIVE

WOODSTOCK, Ontario, Jan. 18. — Recently a girl named Collins died here, as it was supposed, very suddenly. A day or two ago the body was exhumed, prior to its removal to another burial place, when the discovery was made that the girl had been buried alive. Her shroud was torn into shreds, her knees were drawn up to her chin, one of her arms was twisted under her head, and her features bore evidence of dreadful torture.

It didn't help that medical science was slow to produce a reliable checklist of vital signs, nor that many doctors prior to the late 19th century were too poorly educated (or incompetent, or both) to tell a living body from a dead one.

It is also a fact that something of a moral panic concerning premature burials took hold in parts of Europe and North American during the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, the fervor of which was scarcely warranted by the facts. Historians surmise it may have been prompted by the medical discovery that victims of suffocation and drowning could be resuscitated — that, though they appeared dead, they really weren't. This must have been a disconcerting realization for many people at the time.

In any case, so strong was the fear of "precipitate interment" during the 19th century that some folks who had the means took to stipulating in their wills that their coffins be outfitted with signaling devices just in case. No one knows if any of these were ever actually put to good use.


Read more about this urban legend:

What Is It Like to Be Buried Alive?
The Guardian, 7 December 2011

Buried Alive!
Salon.com book review of Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear by Jan Bondeson

Buried Alive
New York Times, 18 January 1886

Not to Be Buried Alive
New York Times, 14 August 1886

The Premature Burial
The short story by Edgar Allan Poe


Last updated: 04/29/13

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