‘Being buried alive, has been the subject of nightmares since time immemorial’
Taphophobia, the fear of being buried alive, has been the subject of nightmares since time immemorial. With today’s modern medicine, there’s little chance of these fears becoming reality. However, for many centuries, it was a genuine threat. In the 19th Century, the limited progression of medicine led to many people being mistakenly buried alive.
There have been instances of premature burial for centuries; with accounts of the presumed-dead clawing themselves out of their coffins. However, the fear of premature burial really reached its peak in the nineteenth century. History shows that the fear of being buried alive has some degree of merit, albeit a small one.
A safety coffin is a coffin fitted with a mechanism to prevent premature burial or allow the occupant to signal that they have been buried alive. They patented many designs for safety coffins during 19th century, and variations on the idea are still available today.
The fear of being buried alive peaked during the cholera epidemics of the 19th century, but accounts of unintentional live burial have been recorded even earlier. Reports of doctors and accounts in literature and the newspapers heightened the fears of being buried alive.
It’s been suggested that the phrases ‘saved by the bell’, ‘dead ringer’ and ‘graveyard shift’ come from the use of safety coffins in the Victorian era.
The fear of being buried alive is still common today, but during the cholera epidemic of the 18th and 19th centuries, the fear was very much justified. In 1905 the English reformer William Tebb found accounts of 219 cases of near live burial, 149 actual live burials and, horrifyingly, 10 cases of live dissection.
This led to the development of the safety coffin, a coffin designed to allow the occupant to signal if they had been buried alive. The very first safety coffin had a window to allow light in, an air tube and a special pocket with a key for the coffin lid and tomb door. Soon more safety coffin designs emerged – a common feature was a bell for signalling, and even a trumpet for checking the smell of decomposition.
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