"Buried alive"—the phrase itself frightens people with its thoughts of being enclosed in a narrow space with one's breathing air diminishing, helpless, and unable to escape. A 1985 Italian study of patients recovering from myocardial infarction, found that 50 percent of them suffered from phobias that included being buried alive. The fear of being buried alive is denoted by the word taphephobia. The state of the appearance of death while still alive has been denoted by the term thanatomimesis, although the phrase "apparent death" is used more frequently by medical professionals and those in the scientific community.
This fear of premature burial is not wholly without basis. On January 25 and 26, 2001, the Boston Globe reported the case of a woman found slumped lifelessly in her bathtub, with a suicide note and evidence of a drug overdose nearby. The police and the emergency medical technicians found no pulse, no sign of breathing, her skin was turgid, and her eyes were unresponsive. She was transported to a nearby funeral home, where the funeral director, on his way out, was startled to hear a faint sound, which he recognized as someone breathing. He quickly unzipped the body bag, held her mouth open to keep her air passages clear, and arranged for her removal to a hospital. Similarly, according to an 1815 volume of the North American Review, a Connecticut woman was nearly buried alive, but fortunately showed signs of life before the coffin was closed.
Cases of people thought dead and being disposed of are reported from ancient times. William Tebb and Vollum, in 1905, speak of Pliny the Elder (23–79 c.e.), who cites the case of a man placed upon a funeral pyre who revived after the fire had been lit, and who was then burnt alive, the fire having progressed too far to save him. Plutarch, Esclepiades the physician, and Plato give similar stories of men who returned to life prior to burial. Hugh Archibald Wyndham wrote a family history, published in 1939, which included the story of Florence Wyndham, who, after a year of marriage, was thought to be dead and buried in the family vault in 1559. The sexton, knowing there were three valuable rings on one of her fingers, went to the vault and began to cut the finger. Blood flowed, the body moved, and the sexton fled leaving his lantern behind. Florence returned to the house in her grave clothes, frightening the household who thought she was a ghost and shut the door against her.
A considerable number of similar premature burial stories have been reported. These burials occur when the individual gives the unmistakable appearance of being dead due to a trance state or a similar medical condition. Burial alive also occurs in natural disasters such as the earthquake in India in 2001, and in avalanches. In such cases the individual's thoughts turn to the hope of rescue.
According to Rodney Davies, author of The Lazarus Syndrome: Burial Alive and Other Horrors of the Undead (1998), the percentage of premature burials has been variously estimated as somewhere between 1 per 1,000 to as many as 1 or 2 percent of all total burials in the United States and Europe. The percentage increases in times of pestilence or war. Premature burials of Americans during World War II and during the Vietnam War has been estimated to have been as high as 4 percent (Davies 1998, p. 133).
Burial alive has sometimes been deliberate. In Rome, vestal virgins who had broken their vows of chastity were imprisoned in an underground chamber with a lighted candle, some bread, a little water mixed with milk, and left to die. In Edgar Allan Poe's story The Cask of Amontillado (1846), the narrator exacts revenge by luring his enemy to the wine cellar and then walling him in. Poe was obsessed with the theme of premature burial, which he used in many stories. William Shakespeare also used premature burial as a theme, the best known example occurring in Romeo and Juliet (1595). Juliet is given a potion that mimics death; Romeo, not knowing she is still alive, kills himself. Juliet, finding him dead, then kills herself. Shakespeare repeats this theme in Henry IV, Part Two (1598), and Pericles, Prince of Tyre (1607). A number of other authors, such as Bram Stoker, Gertrude Atherton, and Wilkie Collins have used variations of the buried alive theme.
Since the nineteenth century, the fear of being buried alive has resulted in the creation of devices that allow one to signal from the coffin. A 1983 U.S. patent (No. 4,367,461), describes an alarm system for coffins that is actuated by a movement of the body in the coffin. In the mid–nineteenth century in Munich, Germany, a building was set aside in which bodies were kept for several days, with an attendant ready to rescue any who had been buried alive. The fingers of the body were fastened to a wire leading to a bell in the room of the attendant. Mark Twain visited this place in 1878 or 1879 and described it in a story which he included in chapter 31 in Life on the Mississippi (1883).
The deliberate invoking of a state mimicking death has been reported from India. Those adept in yoga are able to reduce their respiratory and pulse rates and then be buried for several days before being brought out alive.
See also: Anxiety and Fear; Cryonic Suspension; Definitions of Death; Persistent Vegetative State; Wake
Bondesen, Jan. Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear. New York: W. W. Norton , 2001.
Davies, Rodney. The Lazarus Syndrome: Burial Alive and Other Horrors of the Undead. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1998.
Kastenbaum, Robert, and Ruth Aisenberg. The Psychology of Death. New York: Springer, 1972.
"Obituaries." The North American Review 1 no. 1 (May 1815):141.
Tebb, William, and Edward Perry Vollum. Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented, 2nd edition, edited by Walter R. Hadwen. London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1905.
Wyndham, Hugh Archibald. A Family History 1410–1688: The Wyndhams of Norfolk and Somerset. London: Oxford University Press, 1939.
Zotti, A. M., and G. Bertolotti. "Analisi delle reazioni fobiche in soggetti con infarto miocardico recente." (Analysis of phobic reactions in subjects with recent myocardial infarction.) Medicina Psicosomatica 30, no. 3 (1985):209–215.