Hours before he died, George Washington told his secretary: “Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the Vault in less than three days after I am dead.” This kind of request was not uncommon. In an era when putrefaction was the only sure sign of death, many people in the past feared being buried alive.
Indeed, Washington’s nephew was even more paranoid than the former president. He ordered: “my thumbs are not to be tied together—nor anything put on my face or any restraint upon my Person by Bandages, &c. My Body is to be placed in an entirely plain coffin with a flat Top and a sufficient number of holes bored through the lid and sides—particularly about the face and head to allow Respiration if Resuscitation should take place and having been kept so long as to ascertain whether decay may have occurred or not, the coffin is to be closed up.”
By the 19th century, being trapped inside a coffin was a favorite plot twist for writers of macabre fiction, such as Edgar Allan Poe, whose story The Premature Burial (1844) contributed to the public preoccupation with the subject. Anxiety about premature burial was so widespread that, in 1891, the Italian psychiatrist Enrico Morselli coined the medical term for it: taphephobia (Greek for “grave” + “fear.”)
This phobia led to the creation of so-called “safety coffins.” In 1790, Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick had built the first coffin of this kind, which included a window to allow in light, and a tube to provide a fresh supply of air. The lid of the coffin was then locked and two keys were fitted into a special pocket sewn into his burial shroud: one for the coffin itself and one for the tomb.
Many of the safety coffins that came afterward were touted as “tried and tested.” In 1822, Dr Adolf Gutsmuth consigned himself to the grave in a coffin he had designed personally. For several hours, he remained underground, during which time he consumed a meal of soup, sausages, and beer—all delivered to him through a convenient feeding tube built into the coffin. The Germans were particularly ingenious when it came to safety coffins, patenting over 30 different designs in the 19th century. The best-known model was the brainchild of Dr Johann Gottfried Taberger, and it included a system of ropes that attached the corpse’s hands, feet, and head to an above-ground bell. Although many subsequent designs tried to incorporate this feature, it was by-and-large a design failure. What Dr Taberger didn’t take into account is the fact that the body begins to bloat and swell as it decomposes, causing it to shift inside the coffin. These tiny movements would have set the bells ringing, and visitors to the cemetery running.The Russian Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki’s design was an evengreater disaster than most. In 1897, he buried one of his assistants in order to demonstrate the features of his safety coffin. If the device detected movement from within, it was rigged to open a tube which would allow air to flow while simultaneously raising a flag and ringing a bell. Unfortunately, none of the features worked and the demonstration failed miserably. While the assistant survived, Karnice-Karnicki’s reputation did not.
One of the most unsettling coffin designs came from an American doctor named Timothy Clark Smith who was so terrified of being buried alive that he created a grave that even today intrigues and frightens visitors to Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven, Vermont. When Dr Smith died—aptly enough on Halloween, 1893—his body was interred in a most unusual crypt, with his face positioned at the bottom of a cement tube. This was capped with a piece of plate glass that would allow the unfortunate doctor to gaze upward in the event of his premature burial. Visitors to the cemetery used to report that they could peer down inside the grave and see Dr Smith’s decomposing head. Nowadays, all you can see is darkness and a bit of condensation.
Escape coffins were also built for those who didn’t have the patience to wait for someone to come to the rescue. One such coffin–intended for use in vaults–had a spring-loaded lid that could be opened with a slight movement of the head or hand. Another example was built by retired firefighter Thomas Pursell for himself and his family. Located at Wildwood Cemetery in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, the ventilated vault can be opened from the inside by a handwheel attached to the door. Pursell was buried there in 1937.
If all of this seems a bit irrational to your modern sensibilities, consider the fact that safety coffins are still available for purchase today. In 1995, Fabrizio Caselli invented a model that includes an emergency alarm, a two-way intercom, a flashlight, an oxygen tank, a heartbeat sensor and a heart stimulator. Taphephobia is far from dead and buried!
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