Buried Alive: A History

Happy Halloween everyone!

You can’t be a funeral worker without giving some thought to the history of live burials. Whether it’s a grave fear or a secret fascination, this post will tell you all you need to know about the terrifying fate of being buried alive.

What is the fear about being buried alive?

Taphophobia is the medical term for the fear of being buried alive as a result of being incorrectly pronounced dead. Apparently, this fear has been a common one for centuries. Records of “safety coffins” date back to 1792, when the Duke of Brunswick commissioned a window to be placed in his coffin to let in some light, a special lock that could be unlatched from the inside with a key that was placed in his pocket, and an air tube that would allow oxygen to flow.

The fear of premature burial peaked in the 18th and 19th centuries, with some help from Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying short story, “The Premature Burial.” Poe details supposedly genuine accounts of people who were buried alive, and then delves into his own dark coffin experience and what he imagined it would be like.

Stories in History of Being Buried Alive

In 1889, a woman named Octavia Hatcher lost her first son Jacob when he was an infant. Her deep depression kept her stricken and in bed for several months. She contracted an invisible illness that caused her to enter a coma. She was pronounced dead and buried quickly. It was a few days later when other members of the town started exhibiting the same symptoms that Octavia had—faint pulse, coma-like sleep, shallow breathing—that her husband John panicked and had her body exhumed, just in case she was not really dead when she was buried. He was right—Octavia’s coffin lining had been shredded and her fingernails were broken and bloody. Her post-mortem expression was one of sheer terror and pain.

A French 19-year-old named Angelo Hays crashed his motorcycle into a brick wall in 1937 and was pronounced dead on-site. Reportedly, his head had been so pulverized that his parents were not allowed to see him before he was buried three days after the accident. For insurance reasons, Hays’ body was exhumed two days later, and he was found shockingly alive in the coffin, which had not been air-tight. Hays was medically treated and became somewhat of a celebrity in France, where he invented and sold a special security coffin with a cassette player and a refrigerator built in.

You may actually remember this one: Stephen Small was a businessman in Illinois in 1987 when he received a phone call telling him to meet the local police at a property that belonged to him. Small’s wife also received a call that day, but hers was a bit less veiled: she was told that her husband had been kidnapped and would be returned if she paid the $1 million ransom. Stephen spoke with her on the phone and explained that he had been handcuffed and placed in a pine box. The kidnappers buried him 3 feet under the ground and gave him water and an air pipe so he could survive. Unfortunately, by the time the police found the burial site, his air pipe had failed and he had suffocated.

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