What at first might seem a fictional subject of one of Poe’s more grisly tales, premature burial was actually a legitimate concern in the time of the author’s life. There exist numerous accounts of people being buried alive dating from as far back as the 12th century, and stories abound of exhumed caskets discovered to have scratch marks on the roof when opened. In fact, President George Washington was so terrified of being buried alive that as he lay on his deathbed he begged his servants not to put him in his grave for twelve days to ensure that he was indeed dead.
If it was scary enough to frighten our first president, who was a fearless war general, you can bet the prospect of being buried alive is pretty terrifying. Poe was aware of the widespread fear of being buried alive (known as taphophobia) and utilized it in a few of his stories such as The Premature Burial, Berenice, and The Fall of the House of Usher. The characters buried alive in these stories suffered from catalepsy, an actual nervous condition that causes muscle rigidity, a decreased reaction to pain, and unconsciousness. All were signs that doctors associated with death.
There were tales of people erroneously declared dead awaking at the morgue reported all the way through the 1890s, and while advances in medicine at this time would have made premature burials less prevalent, there were still preventative measures in place just to make sure. Wakes, which began as an ancient Hebrew tradition to ensure death became the most popular method. During the wake, friends and family would sit near the casket and watch for the earliest signs of decomposition, just to make sure that their deceased loved one had actually died. This burial custom is still used today, though it is not necessarily to ensure that the person is dead.
There was an entire market for caskets and contraptions that would provide extra ways of preventing an individual from suffering a premature burial. Signal bells were installed next to some graves. Attached to a piece of string that would be tied around the deceased’s finger, this string could be pulled to ring the bell and signal a person nearby in the event that the departed was not quite so departed after all. Others had air pipes built into their coffin roofs to allow fresh air to get into the victim, prolonging their life. Still others created vaults that had escape hatches so that the revived person could escape.
Premature burial certainly gave new meaning to “rest in peace” as the outcome of being buried alive was anything but peaceful. After being buried, a casket has only a few hours’ worth of oxygen trapped inside of it. If someone was unfortunate enough to wake up, they would inevitably become panic-stricken as they tried to escape; this elevated stress level would cause the individual to consume oxygen at a much higher rate. In this state, they would lose consciousness in less than five minutes and die of asphyxiation in less than half an hour.