Post Mortem

“[T]he grave, which was shamefully shallow, was, in a few minutes, so far thrown open that the head of its occupant appeared. He was then, seemingly, dead; but he sat nearly erect within his coffin, the lid of which, in his furious struggles, he had partially uplifted.” (Edgar Allan Poe, The Premature Burial)

It’s difficult to think of something more terrifying than being buried alive. But back in the 18th and 19th centuries, this fear was very real, and–unfortunately–substantiated. Wakes were first invented in part to give the body a couple of days to “revive” before it was buried. Dead bodies were sometimes even decapitated before burial, in accordance with the person’s will or the surviving family’s wishes, in order to ensure that the deceased would not return to life in a coffin. By the time Poe published “The Premature Burial” in 1844, the horror of being trapped alive in a coffin had become a widespread concern.

Science to the rescue! Then came the invention of “Safety Coffins,” devices that were intended to solve the premature-burial problem.

These coffins usually included “alarm systems” for the buried person to indicate that they were alive. Often this included a string attached to an above-ground bell. Other devices included a tube that allowed priests to monitor the odor of the corpse (thus if there were no bad smells emanating from the tube, the body would be presumed living and dug up), and viewing windows that allowed watchmen and visitors to see the deceased’s face. Some included breathing or feeding tubes as well.

The viewing window on the grave of Dr. Timothy Clark Smith, in Vermont.

Click here to read more about patents for safety coffins. And here is a great article about 10 historic instances of being buried alive. Turns out many of the victims of this horrible fate were found face-down or on their side, with their hair torn out and fingernails worn down from their struggle. Gruesome stuff indeed.

With all the medical advances we have now, the fear of being mistakenly pronounced dead seems antiquated, right? Well, a news story released in 2011 reveals that a morgue built recently in Turkey includes refrigerators with handles on the inside, motion detectors, and alarms that ensure that their dead are truly Resting in Peace.

I just picture being in a graveyard, at night, hearing the tinkling of a little bell, and wondering with a shudder whether it was just the wind…

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