Buried Alive

Lincoln's Funeral
Picture Source: Library of Congress

Through history, one of the main worries was being buried alive. We, living in the United States at this time, are fortunate not to have this worry, but this worry still exists in many parts of the world. The reason we are so fortunate is due to the fact that embalming has become a common practice in our country. It wasn't always this way and people strove to find different ways to prevent this catastrophe through history. A popular 19th century invention was Bateson's Belfry. It was designed specifically to prevent someone from being sealed up in a coffin while alive. A bell was mounted on top of the coffin with a rope that went through the coffin and was fastened to the hand of the corpse (or comatose person). If the rope was pulled ever so lightly it would ring the bell. The device became very popular.

The ancient Jews had their own method for preventing this. They buried their dead, or not so dead as they thought, in a cave and would visit the body for the next three days. This assured them that the person was indeed dead. Of course we know now that three days may have not been enough time. If you were unfortunate enough to be a servant of a ancient pharaoh who died you may have been buried alive with him on purpose. In ancient Rome there was a physician named Foretus. Foretus told his colleagues not to be too hasty in pronouncing someone dead.

It is said that there was a monk who lived in the 6th century who was named Oran. He had died and was dug up the next day but was alive. The monks after listening to him, felt he was a heretic and buried him again. This poor guy just couldn't win. In the middle 1800s the Oregon Trail was the gateway for wagons to get to California. Unfortunately it was a very hard trek and a disease called Cholera killed many travelers. There was no cure for Cholera and you could die in just a few hours after exhibiting symptoms. It is thought that because of the haste to get off the trail many people may have been buried while they were still alive. It is known that many were abandoned. Some of the graves were very shallow and animals such as wolves dug up the bodies.

In 1934 a story was printed in The Washington Post and referred to a person named Ann Carter Lee. It seems that this person fell ill and was buried in the family vault. A week later a sexton entered the vault and heard her cry for help. There is a dispute as to whether this story is true or not. Another story is told about an artillery officer who was thrown form his horse and received a severe contusion on the head. After being treated, including trepanning and bleeding he fell into a stupor and died, but did he? He was buried quickly as the weather was very warm. After he was buried for three days, an excited visitor said that while he was sitting on the grave he could feel the earth move. The grave was dug up and the occupant of this grave sat up. Luckily for him the dirt was very porous and the grave shallow and the coffin lid was ajar so air was able to get to him. It is said that Andre Vesalius who lived in the 16th century was dissecting a body of a Spanish nobleman when the nobleman screamed and jumped up off the table and ran out of the room. This would seem to be a fate worse than death itself.

In 19th century America there was a Society that became very popular, its name was "Society for the Prevention of People Being Buried Alive". I can see why this would be popular, can you? There point was that the deceased should be left in his or her casket for several days or weeks before being buried. This was to be sure that the deceased was truly deceased. In 1858 the Duke of Wellington died but was kept in his coffin, without burial, for two months.

There are many horrific cases where man's inhumanity to man has caused people to be buried alive on purpose. A case that comes to mind is a mass grave that was discovered in the village of Dachny in Chechnya. A mass grave was discovered there and it is believed that about 16 people were buried alive. Villagers in Vietnam were sometimes buried alive if the Viet Cong suspected them of consorting with the enemy. This practice goes back to ancient times.

One of my favorite stories is of a Scottish lady named Majorie Halcrow Erskine. She lived in Chirnside, Scotland. She was buried in 1674. Grave robbers opened the grave to get her jewelry, but when they did, she began to groan. The robbers ran away horrified. She got up and walked home. She then proceeded to outlive her husband by over six years.

Our good friend Edgar Allan Poe helped to bring about embalming just by writing his famous story, The Premature Burial. It brought to the forefront the thing that people were most scared of and prompted the exploration of ways to prevent this. Before embalming, a special type of coffin was invented that contained poison gas. When the lid was nailed the gas was released, thus making sure the person inside was dead. I wonder how many of the people nailing the lid on got gassed?

One thing that no one can do anything about except to try a rescue is accidental burial. It seems that every year people are being buried alive by snow, dirt, rocks and collapsing structures. Just look at the people that were pulled out from the twin towers and the earthquake rubble in Iran. I guess this will always be a problem. Lets just hope this never happens to us.

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