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May 6

The Horror of Premature Burial

31 Days of Halloween: On Atlas Obscura this month, we’re celebrating Halloween each day with woeful, wondrous, and wickedly macabre tales all linked to a real locale that you can visit, if you dare.

article-imageHarry Clarke’s 1919 illustration for Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Premature Burial” (via Wikimedia

Just before he died, Frederic Chopin supposedly wrote a note saying: “The earth is suffocating. Swear to make them cut me open, so I won’t be buried alive.” 

Although it seems like the stuff of horror fiction today, people in previous centuries were very concerned about the possibility of ending up in a living tomb. The Victorian novelist and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton asked for his heart to be punctured before he was buried, to make sure he was truly dead. George Washington requested that his body be watched for two days after his apparent demise. The Danish author and poet Hans Christian Andersen was so frightened of premature burial that he often slept with a sign on him that read: “I am not really dead.”

Most of us who have never witnessed death assume it happens quickly and clearly; one minute someone is awake and breathing, the next they are a still, silent corpse. But death is a biological process that moves throughout the body, and signs of life can remain long after the apparent end. We die in stages. Even after a beheading, the eyes sometimes still flicker. (Before his turn at the guillotine during the French Revolution, chemist Antoine Lavoisier asked his friends to watch his eyelids. They blinked for fifteen seconds after his death.) Worse, there are plenty of conditions that mimic death, at least to the untrained eye. Comas and trances diminish vital signs. The victims of plagues suffer and swoon, grow cold, and their heartbeats turn faint to the point of undetectable. 

Until relatively recently, doctors had few reliable means of determining death. As Kenneth V. Iserson notes in his wonderful book Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies, Shakespeare mentions two of the earliest methods for determining whether life was still present: the feather and the mirror. In Henry IV, Part II, the Prince of Wales says:

By his gates of breath
There lies a downy feather which stirs not:
Did he suspire, that light and weightless down
Perforce must move.

While in King Lear, the King announces:

Lend me a looking-glass;
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why, then she lives.

By the late 18th century, an English invention had improved on the mirror trick. In a particularly macabre version of invisible ink, an attendant would use silver nitrate to brush the words “I am dead” in silver nitrate on a pane of glass placed over the coffin. The words stayed invisible until the gases from the decomposing body made them show up. 

But these methods were far from foolproof, and in the 18th and 19th centuries, many in Europe and America were terrified of being buried alive. Gruesome news stories stoked their fears, as did the 1844 publication of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “Premature Burial.” There were tales of bodies exhumed with scrape marks on the roofs of their coffin, wrists gnawed in terrible hunger, skeletons found near the doors of their tombs, babies born to women who had been left for dead. Many of the stores involve avaricious sextons returning to the graves of wealthy women to dig up their jewelry, only to get a nasty surprise. By 1895, British magazine the Spectator was telling its readers that “burning, drowning, even the most hideous mutilation under a railway train, is as nothing compared with burial alive.”

article-imageWilliam Tebb’s “Premature Burial and How it May Be Prevented” from TK (photograph by Halsted Bernard)

Ingenious inventors devised a number of means for safeguarding against premature burial. In 1752, Antoine Louis proposed blowing tobacco smoke up the rears of the apparently deceased to awaken them. Tobacco enemas indeed became popular, at least in 19th century Holland, while one French clergyman advocated applying a red-hot poker instead. In 1854, another Frenchman invented the pince-mamelon, or “Nipple Pincher,” a particularly strong pair of giant tweezers designed to shock the supposedly dead back to life.

Still others applied their ingenuity to the creation of elaborate “life-signaling” coffins or “safety coffins.” One of the most famous, devised by Chamberlain to the Czar Count Karnicé-Karnicki and patented in 1897, involved placing a spring-loaded ball on the chest of the apparently deceased. If the chest moved, the ball’s spring would release, triggering the release of light and air into the coffin through a tube that extended to the surface of the grave. A system of bells and flags also allowed for the summoning of help. A number of such designs were patented, although it’s not clear if any were ever used.

article-imageAn “improved burial case” patented by Franz Vester, which included a ladder and a bell in case of premature burial (via US Patents Office)

The Germans had their own solution. These were Leichenhaüsers, or waiting houses, chambers designed to hold the apparently dead until their putrefaction confirmed their plight. A physician-turned-philanthropist named Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland built the first Leichenhaüser, in Weimar, Germany in 1791. The “corpse chamber,” which could hold eight bodies at a time, was kept constantly warm with pipes that fed the room with steam, to hasten the decomposition of the bodies. Leichenhaüsers were built all over Germany and elsewhere between 1795 and 1828, and some even later, with ever-increasing frills: there were heaps of scented flowers, bells, and wires attached to the corpses in case they woke up, and a long-suffering porter who had to keep watch. In some cases, people paid admission for the privilege of wandering amongst the bodies.

article-imageA vault designed by Thomas Pursell in Wildwood Cemetery in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, which was ventilated and lined with felt and could be opened from the inside (photograph by road_less_trvled/Flickr user)

The rise of arterial embalming at the end of the 19th century helped put such fears to rest. If you weren’t dead when the embalmer started, you certainly were by the time he was finished. Yet the difficulties of determining death haven’t fallen by the wayside, especially as the criteria for determining end of life changes. Debate continues over whether brain death truly constitutes death, and if not, what really signals the end. Today our fears are less about being trapped in a tomb, and more about trapped in a lifeless body.

Bess Lovejoy is a writer, researcher, and editor based in Brooklyn. Her book Rest in Pieces was published this year by Simon & Schuster. She worked on the Schott’s Almanac series for five years, and her writing has also appeared in The New York Times, The Believer, The Boston Globe, and elsewhere. This evening, she is speaking at Atlas Obscura’s event in the Green-Wood Cemetery catacombs. 

For a look at some of the life-preserving coffins mentioned above, pay a visit to these places:

UNDERTAKERS MUSEUM, Vienna, Austria,

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF FUNERAL HISTORY, Houston, Texas

And for a preserved building where the dead were once watched for signs of life, stop by here: 

DEAD HOUSE, The Hague, Netherlands

And for a grave with a window and stairs built by a man who was terrified of being buried alive, head here:

GRAVE OF TIMOTHY CLARK SMITH, New Haven, Vermont


Click here for more of our 31 Days of Halloween, where each day we’re celebrating the strange-but-true unsettling corners of the world. And check in on FacebookTumblr, and Twitter to participate in the daily offerings of unsavory Halloween treats.