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A primal fear that won't die

April 17, 2006|Elena Conis

Some conditions and poisons can make a person appear dead -- even though the heart still slowly and faintly beats. In the days before stethoscopes and electrical heart monitors, it was not unheard of for an unfortunate soul to be mistakenly declared dead -- and subsequently buried alive.


-- Elena Conis


Fears of premature burial reached a fevered pitch in the 18th and 19th centuries when rumors took hold that doctors were so ill-equipped to diagnose death that as many as 1 in 10 patients were being sent six feet under before their time.

Jean-Jacques Bruhier, a French doctor who published several books on the topic in the late 1700s, is largely credited with initiating widespread panic about premature burial. He detailed horrifying cases: bodies awakening on the autopsy table; corpses dug up with scraped knees and elbows, lying face down or sideways though they had been buried on their backs; opened coffins revealing cadavers with clenched fists full of their own hair, chewed fingertips and faces frozen in grimaces; and, in a couple of truly nightmarish cases, pregnant women who gave birth in their graves.

Under attack by a frightened public, doctors tried to calm them with new death-verifying techniques: tobacco smoke enemas; smelling salts, pepper and snuff up the nose; electrical shocks; red-hot pokers applied to skin; loud horns; and metal gadgets to make exposed muscles twitch.

Lay-inventors came to the rescue too, designing special coffins and devices to bury with the dead in case they woke.

Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick devised a coffin fastened with a lock instead of nails -- and an interior pocket with a spare set of keys for the undead to let himself out. A German priest advocated inserting a tube and rope into all coffins, so that a wakened corpse could breathe and ring the church bell (to which the other end of the rope would be attached).

Others suggested burying bodies with axes and shovels, speaking trumpets, lamps, bells, sirens, sliding doors, ladders, air pumps, heaters, phones, lunchboxes full of food and wine, and breathing tubes wide enough for beer and sausages to pass through.

In the late 1890s, the Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki marketed his security-coffin, Le Karnice, on both sides of the Atlantic. If the dead body in Le Karnice shifted in the slightest, the movement would open a tube to let in air and ring a bell in a box above the grave, triggering a flag on top of the box to pop up and a light to flash. But for all his marketing efforts, only a few coffins sold.

As the new millennium approached, logic and new scientific knowledge prevailed. Unfortunate patients may in fact have been buried alive -- but likely far fewer than the 19th century public feared.

Gravediggers sometimes overturn or drop coffins, moving the bodies into positions suggesting attempts to get out. A dead body can groan, or even expel an unborn baby, when the bottled-up gases inside it seek openings through which to escape. And rats can chew their way into coffins and feast on fingers and toes.

Despite the fact that just a few premature-burials have been documented since 1900, the theme appears again and again in books and movies -- including "Buried Alive," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Kill Bill: Vol. 2." The idea of being buried alive, it seems, retains the power to horrify, as unlikely an occurrence as it actually is.

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