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Taphophobia: The Fear of Being Buried Alive

1854 painting by Antoine Wiertz titled The Premature Burial

1854 painting by Antoine Wiertz titled The Premature Burial

How many folktales have you heard about someone being buried alive? Have you ever laughed at the idea of people – either fictional or real – going to bed with notes advising whoever might find them to check and see if they are really dead? In the modern world it’s hard to believe, but for a long time taphophobia, or the fear of being buried alive, was a perfectly legitimate concern.

Taphophobia is taken from the Greek words for grave and fear. As with all phobias, no matter how rare or odd, this fear is still prevalent in some people. However, there is no longer the taphophobia epidemic which swept the world until well into the 19th century.

This fear developed not because of anybody’s irrational thoughts but because this kind of thing actually happened – and quite regularly too. Before modern medicine it was rather difficult to tell whether someone was really dead or not. Taphophobia became a common and understandable mental ailment when more and more exhumations revealed evidence that the person was more than likely buried alive.

There were reports of finding coffin lids disturbed or at least covered in nail marks. Sometimes recently buried bodies would be found covered in blood from self-inflicted wounds. The victim would sometimes even tear his or her own hair out. These reports caused panic as more and more people began to worry that they might one day wake up and find they had been buried alive.

Saved by the Bell

The phrase Saved by the bell is derived from a rather odd invention developed in the hopes of reducing the risk of being buried alive. You would be surprised how many patents have been issued to inventions such as Franz Vester’s coffin:

Franz Vester's Improved Burial Case

Franz Vester's Improved Burial Case

Known as the Improved Burial Case, this casket had an attached bell with a pull which allowed the occupant to sound the alarm and save his or her life in the event of premature burial. Inventions such as this were known as safety coffins and would include features such as air tubes and even ways of getting food. Windowed caskets can also be considered safety coffins: if the person was still alive his or her breath would eventually fog up the glass.

To a certain extent, wakes and lying in state were also techniques developed to keep someone from accidentally being buried alive. By the time the formalities were done, it would be pretty obvious whether the person was dead or not.

Portrait of James Hogg by Sir John Watson Gordon

Portrait of James Hogg by Sir John Watson Gordon

In Literature

The fear of being buried alive is a common theme in classic horror stories. It is difficult, however, for a modern reader to realize that the thrills and chills we now receive by reading these tales were caused by authors exploiting the public’s fears and making money off of what they knew would sell.

For example, in 1832 Scottish writer James Hogg (1770-1835) published a short story titled Some Terrible Letters from Scotland. This story is about the cholera pandemic which lasted from 1829-1851 (known in history books as the “Second Cholera Pandemic”). Some people might feel that this tale was Hogg’s way of championing those affected by the plague. But that is no excuse for him allowing his main character to undergo the horror of a nearly carried out premature burial.

At this time taphophobia had reached its own climax. The number of supposed cholera fatalities increased the number of those accidentally buried alive. Hogg had no right to take advantage of the public’s worries in such as low way as writing Gothic fiction about it.

Illustration by Harry Clarke for The Premature Burial

Illustration by Harry Clarke for The Premature Burial

Edgar Allan Poe certainly made the most of the idea of being buried alive (The Fall of the House of Usher and so on); but one of his stories actually tackles taphophobia itself: The Premature Burial, written in 1844, is the story of an unnamed narrator who is terrified of being buried alive. He goes through several supposedly true examples of people being interred while still alive and the story climaxes when he believes that he himself is trapped in his coffin.

First person narrative by an unnamed character is a typical Poe technique (Ligeia, The Tell-Tale Heart). In The Premature Burial, however, Poe most likely did this to narrate his reader’s thoughts and latch onto what was at the time a legitimate worry. The Premature Burial is still a chilling tale. But it is probably not even half as effective now as it was in the 19th century.


Moral Man on October 15, 2020:

I wrote here some 6 years ago as the anonymous guy. The fears have remained the same. Being buried alive is the worst form of torture with claustrophobia and suffocation. Its a fate worse than death. Its horror beyond imagining.

Its a smart idea to get embalmed after death to make sure that one is dead. Lets try to prevent such horrors from happening. i live in endless fear.

LastRoseofSummer2 (author) from Arizona on October 26, 2013:

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Dear anonymous, I am so sorry you are living with such difficulty. I very much understand how horrible life can seem: I too have OCD. I too have been struggling with questions regarding good and evil, particularly since my mother died of cancer. Life and death can seem unbelievably horrendous. But I try to hold onto things that are good, kind and true, no matter how small they may seem.

I hope both you and I can find some kind of peace. Peace is a wonderful thing!

LastRoseofSummer2 (author) from Arizona on October 26, 2013:

Twilight Lawns - Thank you! :)

anonymous on October 26, 2013:

Dear Twilight Lawns Im pessimistic for a number of reasons. Im a physically ugly, mentally ill, mentally disabled guy who suffers from loneliness, depression, o.c.d. frequent nightmares, being stuck in a grueling horrible job, being stuck in an impersonal, fragmented, selfish, overpopulated, polluted suburb with traffic jams, sociopathy, and alienation. I don't have a girlfriend and I suffer from endless unrelieved loneliness day in and day out, year in and year out. My family suffers from serious health problems and my father passed away from heart failure and stroke. The poor man also suffered from heart attacks and anginas, hernia, severe toothache, kidney stone, and once contracted dengue fever from a mosquito bite. My poor mother suffered for years from migraine headaches and had a near fatal stroke. I live in fear of diseases and accidents. Car accidents are the biggest causes of injury and death and are the biggest causes of pollution. People are cruel and Nature is cruel. Summer and winter we suffer from one extreme of climate to another. Its either 80 to 100 degrees in the summer or its 40 or 30 or 20 or 10 degrees icy cold in the winter. Its unpleasant and unhealthy. And much of the year mosquitoes and ticks pester us. This pales in comparison to the misery of other countries such as Africa, India, Brazil where theres malaria, yellowfever, ebola, venomous pests such as centipedes, cobras, mambas, vipers, wandering spiders, bullet ants, scorpions,etc. Mass starvation and unclean water and hurricanes and tsunamis cause misery and loss of life. Animals also suffer and die as well as human beings. I don't know if animals suffer more or if human beings suffer more. The suffering and death of good innocent animals at the cruel hands of Nature or from the cruel hands of human beings makes me sad and angry. I had a beloved small pet parrot who died from an aneurysm. There was external bleeding. Blood poured out of his eyes and beak. This is a crime which Nature inflicts on its creatures. Aneurysm is one of the cruelest and most horrible diseases and afflicts both people and animals. Its painful beyond imagining and if left untreated is as lethal as a gunshot blast. What kind of God allows these horrors? The Bible says many people are headed to hell in the next life to be tortured forever. Fire, worms, excrement, suffocation, mutilation, demons and Satan. The sick preacher David J. Stewart says that victims in hell will be buried alive forever in a claustrophobic environment as they burn in fire at the same time. This is monstrous, fiendish, diabolical, satanic cruelty worse than any horror movie. Is this a loving, merciful God? No this is a cruel, sadistic, insane, malevolent psychopathic monster whose cruelty exceeds that of Hitler, Stalin, Bundy and Gacy. Being buried alive is horrific beyond words and according to David J. Stewart God is going to inflict such a horrific torture forever to those in hell. Its monstrous. Absolutely monstrous. Its beyond monstrous. Its beyond sick. Its beyond insanity. Its beyond stupidity. Its beyond cruelty. What kind of criminal inflicts this kind of torture? I live in endless fear.

Twilight Lawns from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K. on October 26, 2013:

Sorry about being brief, but Anonymous has a rather bleak outlook on life, and, I think, would benefit from a walk in a park and a bit of sunshine.

Yes, I admit that there have been atrocities perpetrated in the past, but to believe that almost interminable list of horrors shows a rather unhappy mind and attitude to life.

Cheer up! From where you're standing, everything can only get better.

LastRoseofSummer2 (author) from Arizona on October 24, 2013:

Twilight Lawns - I don't blame you for being creeped out about the idea of waking up in your coffin! If for some reason you're not quite dead, you would probably wake up during the embalming process, so if your plans are followed, you should be alright - sorry, that sounds so macabre! Happy Halloween, I guess :)

Thanks for reading!

Twilight Lawns from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K. on October 24, 2013:

Regardless of history and medicine moving on, I have a real fear of being buried alive (and I suffer from claustrophobia also), and by the strangest of coincidences, yesterday I was instructing a solicitor to make up my Last Will and Testament, and when he asked me if I wanted to be buried or cremated, I said that I wasn't particularly worried so long as they embalmed me first.

No chance of being buried alive or cremated with several litres of embalming fluid sloshing around in my veins, is there?

LastRoseofSummer2 (author) from Arizona on May 01, 2013:

my_girl_sara - Thank you for reading and for your comment. Glad you liked it!

Cynthia Lyerly from Georgia on May 01, 2013:

Excellent blog! I rarely read blogs the whole way through. It was just the right length, interesting topic, and I learned something.

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