Buried Alive: A Justified 19th Century Phobia

Buried alive: an unfounded fear in the 21st century, a very reasonable phobia during the 19th century. I spent some time googling the subject of premature burial, and what I found is somewhat disturbing. It’s called the Lazarus syndrome; where no vital signs are evident and a person is proclaimed dead only to later regain consciousness.

This happened more frequently during the late 18th and early 19th centuries when the methods used to proclaim a person dead were not as advanced as they are today. In 1896, an American funeral director, T.M. Montgomery reported that premature burial was proven to have taken place in 2% of those exhumed. Gasp! And that 2% figure came solely from those coffins that were dug up!

In fact, being buried alive was such a justified fear during the 18th and 19th centuries that safety coffins and special graveyards were introduced, fitted with a bell, a flag, an airway, an intercom, a fridge with all necessary food supplies, a fresh change of clothing and some deodorant to cover up that decaying smell (okay, so I added the last three – but that’s what I want in my coffin when I die + a gaming console to keep me occupied while I wait to be dug up). Let me not get carried away here, the bottom line is that premature burial happened, and obviously far more often than known figures actually reflect. Why? Because if we wanted to know actual percentages, we’d have to dig up all old graves to figure out just how often it actually happened.

Now for some gory details – the coffins that have been exhumed where people were found to have been buried alive revealed scratch marks on all sides of the coffin, the deceased to have pulled their hair out in distress, and many of the victims to be lying face down instead of face up as they were buried. AHHHH! The stuff nightmares are made of.

Case examples? There are many! Here are just two:

  • Jenkins from Asheville, N.C. buried alive on the 20th of January 1885. This one really creeped me out because the story was published in the New York Times and you can read the actual archived copy of the report in PDF online. Take a look here if you’re interested. Basically this Jenkins guy, described as a ‘young man’, was sick with fever for several weeks. He then became cold, clammy and speechless and ‘appeared’ to have no action of the pulse or heart. He was proclaimed dead and was prepared for burial. However (and this is so creepy), they noticed on the day of his burial that his limbs weren’t stiff like those of a dead person and he was said to be ‘as limber as a live man.’ But, they buried him anyway (nice family he had, pfft). There was much talk in the neighborhood about the possibility of Jenkins being buried alive. These doubts were cast aside, until ten months later when Jenkins was exhumed with the intent of moving his body to the family burial grounds. When the heavy wood coffin was removed, it was suggested that it be opened to see whether the body was in a good enough condition to be hauled 20 miles before putting it into a metallic casket. It was then that they saw the frightful signs! (imagine some eery music while you read the rest) – to the horror of the onlookers, Jenkins’ body was found lying face downwards, there were fingernail scratches on all sides of the coffin, he had pulled the hair from his head in ‘great quantities’ – and naturally this caused much distress to his immediate family who had believed him to be dead at the time of his burial.
  • Sipho William Mdletshe from South Africa was involved in a serious car accident and declared dead in 1993. He was taken to a mortuary and placed in a metal box. The poor guy woke up after two days and two nights in the metal box, probably thought he was having a nightmare when he realized where he was, screamed for help and was ‘rescued’ by mortuary workers. He couldn’t wait to get home to his mourning fiance – she’d probably think he had returned with some divine wisdom … not quite … being African and superstitious as hell, she refused to let him come anywhere near her, thinking rather that he was a zombie who had returned to haunt her.

That’s all I have time for today folks. There isn’t very much more to say, other than that we should all be thankful that we didn’t live in the 18th or 19th centuries. Also, some of you should be thankful that you don’t live in Africa, as poor old Sipho had to go through that whole ordeal less than ten years ago. Hmmm … rant about South Africa? Nah, that’s a subject for another day.

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2 Responses to Buried Alive: A Justified 19th Century Phobia

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