“Are you sure that your relative is actually dead, when the coffin is fastened, never to be opened”? –Louisville Daily Courier, 1868
What options did a person have over a century ago if they wanted to avoid being buried alive? A look through historical newspapers from both sides of the Atlantic gives us some answers!
One option for preventing “premature burial” (also called “premature interment”) was the safety coffin. Though designs differed, safety coffins typically included a signaling device that let people above ground know the person in the casket was still alive.
Numerous illustrations and articles about safety coffins appeared in newspapers of the time. One featured in the papers was designed by Russian count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki. According to the Stockton, California, Daily Record in 1901,
Karnice-Karnicki’s safety coffin design 26 Apr 1901, Fri Stockton Daily Evening Record (Stockton, California) Newspapers.com
[The] apparatus consists of a tube four inches in diameter, a box, and a few appliances for signaling. The tube is placed over an aperture in the coffin, and the other end of it appears above the surface of the ground, where it is surmounted by the box. Through the tube passes a rod, on the end of which, inside the coffin, is a ball. The slightest movement of the body in the coffin is communicated to the rod, which in turn releases springs. The door of the hermetically sealed box flies open, the bell rings, and the signal ball rises above the grave to a height of six feet.
Other types of safety coffins were featured in newspapers as well, such as:
- A version that used a flag and bell as signals
- A coffin connected with electricity to a gong and to an “indicator in a watch house”
- A “grave signal” that utilized a glass globe and red cloth
One safety coffin got quite a bit of newspaper attention in 1868 when its inventor, Franz Vester, gave a public demonstration in New Jersey about how it worked. In addition to the typical alarm system, newspapers noted that Vester’s coffin also included a “receptacle for refreshments.”
But not everyone who feared premature burial wanted (or could afford) a safety coffin, so other methods focused on ensuring that a person was truly dead before burial.
One option frequently discussed in newspapers was to build “waiting mortuaries,” which were reportedly used in Germany. The ideal waiting mortuary was a closely monitored, comfortable institution where bodies could be kept until they showed signs of decomposition—or signs of life.Description of waiting mortuaries 23 Oct 1896, Fri Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland) Newspapers.com
Newspapers also documented other suggestions for verifying death, including:
- Dropping belladonna into the eyes to see if the pupils reacted
- Injecting a compound that would discolor the skin and eyes if the person were alive
- X-raying the internal organs
Some people’s fear of being buried alive even led them to request specific procedures prior to burial, such as asking that their head be amputated, their heart pierced with a needle, or their jugular vein cut.
Turning Anxiety into Action
Just how often people were actually buried alive during the Victorian era is unknown. Even at the time, its prevalence was hotly debated in the European and American medical communities—and in the press.20 Dec 1899, Wed Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) Newspapers.com
13 Dec 1897, Mon Freeland Tribune (Freeland, Pennsylvania) Newspapers.com
Whether premature burials were common or not, the popularity of the topic reflects a real anxiety among some segments of the population at the time—an anxiety that certainly wasn’t diminished by the numerous “true” newspaper accounts of people being buried alive.
But in some cases, this concern led to action. Perhaps most noticeable were the associations that lobbied for regulation of death certificates and other aspects of the death verification process—hoping to prevent the “unspeakable cruelty” of premature burial.
Find more newspaper stories about premature burial on Newspapers.com™. And follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for more historical content like this!
7 thoughts on “How NOT to Be Buried Alive”
My great grandfather, an British Army Officer during 5he Crimean War, was taken up for dead & put into the dead cart, prior to being buried in a common grave. However, his batman heard about it & rushed round & said “Take him off, I’m not going to let those boots, that I have polished so well, be buried in a common grave”. So he was pulled off, & it was found that he was unconscious, not dead!
My great grandfather was later awarded the VC.
What an incredible story!
I would say if there were no regulations today to verify death then this fact back then would easily happen in todays world.
Many humans live in fear of touching another human when they are not responding to verbal commands and then physical reactions, you know when most kick the foot or leg of a person to see if they react.
I’ve seen too many humans walk by bodies laying on the ground. It’s everyone’s job to constantly assess is the person on the ground is alive or dead? Maybe if we all did that it would become annoying to people and they might seek help. Hmmm imagine…
Sidewalk sleeper enters building: Hi. Can you help me? I can’t get a minute of sleep out there with everyone asking and yelling at me HELLO HELLO ARE YOU OK or ARE YOU SLEEPING? Why can’t people go back to the good old days of not caring about others and what they did?)
You wouldn’t want to find out a family member died because no one saw them fall and yet many walked by believing they’re homeless living on the street.
It is everyone’s job to question or verify if the person on the ground is dead or alive. If you do not know then you just let someone die on the ground. Congratulations.
I remember a story my mother told me about a man who had “died” and was at an undertaker’s business. Mom said her mother told her about it. Apparently the man who died was bathed and left naked on a preparation table to be embalmed. While the undertaker was eating his lunch, the man revived. Usually the funeral home was the undertaker’s residence. The revived man according to the story began to scream and basically went insane running around the room until he ran out into the street.
Well that was the end of the story my mom told. Was it true? Yes it was. I found a newspaper account of it happening in a newspaper from the late 1800’s in a Wausaukee, Wisconsin or Door County Newspaper. The man did revive and did run around the house. He was declared legally insane and transported to the Wisconsin Hospital for the Insane in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
So yes, prior to embalming, the people did have reason to question whether a loved one or they themselves would be declared dead before their time.
I would add they not only had reason they had those situations as facts. And facts are true until proven not true,
Proof of not true always has (or should always have) the testing or validation documentation attached to the fact or easily accessible for the disbeliever.
After all our teachers teach us to question life, document our findings, and have an open mind. The open mind is to realize that our findings may have lacked information that we now have which invalidates our findings and we agree their findings are the optimal answer.
If people had facts and decided via opinion the facts are wrong then they need to go to the other person and ask them to clarify how the facts you have negate what they have.
No one has a right to say “Don’t believe them. They’re wrong.” We should be asking that person in private “Can we see your testing or validation documents?”
If there is nothing to show or provide immediately, to those asking questions to the person yelling “They’re wrong. They don’t know what they’re doing..”, then the speakers words should not be shared until proven true.
Sharing of information comes with the responsibility of personally validating and documenting the information. Failure to do so propagates tales and lies.
That is what we are all taught.
Why aren’t we validating and documenting our findings to send to others to validate?
Why are we allowing opinions to rule our lives?
Person A: Did you see how those immigrants are coming into our city from Nova Scotia (and Ireland)? Dirty bastards are taking our jobs.
Person B: Yes I saw we are accepting immigrants from Nova Scotia (and Ireland.) Can you send to me your testing or validation documentation? The data showing they are taking jobs. I want to become more familiar with these facts.
Person A: What? I don’t need any documentation. I can see it with my own eyes.
Person B: Ok. Then could you send to me the documentation related to each position you applied to but went to an immigrant?
Person A: What? I don’t need to apply to see with my own eyes.
Person B: Oh I apologize then. You do know what you see is not a fact it is an opinion. A fact not validated by yourself and the jobs not even having an application from you. That’s an opinion and we as humans should not destroy others humans based on opinion. And that is my opinion on how to stop us all from poisoning our lives
I presume the safety coffin was for someone who appeared to be dead when placed in the coffin, and then became conscious again after the coffin had been buried?
Probably for every one except a nagging mother-in-law!
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