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Inventors addressed the fear of burial alive

Fear of being buried alive is the fear of being placed in a grave while still alive as a result of being incorrectly pronounced dead. The abnormal, psychopathological version of this fear is referred to as taphophobia (from Greek taphos, meaning "grave"), which is translated as "fear of graves".[1]

Before the advent of modern medicine the fear was not entirely irrational. Throughout history there have been numerous cases of people being accidentally buried alive. The 18th century had seen the development of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and crude defibrillation techniques to revive persons considered dead, and the Royal Humane Society had been formed as the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Dead.[2] In 1896 an American funeral director, T.M. Montgomery, reported that "nearly 2% of those exhumed were no doubt victims of suspended animation."[3]

There have been many urban legends of people being accidentally buried alive. Legends included elements such as someone entering into the state of sopor only to wake up years later and die again a horrible death. Another legend tells of coffins opened to find a corpse with a long beard or corpses with the hands raised and palms turned upward. Of note is a legend about the premature burial of Ann Hill Carter Lee, the late wife of Henry Lee III.[4]

Fear of being buried alive was elaborated to the extent that those who could afford it would make all sorts of arrangements for the construction of a "safety coffin"[5] to ensure this would be avoided (e.g. glass lids for observation, ropes to bells for signaling, and breathing pipes for survival until rescued).[6]

An urban legend states that the sayings "Saved by the bell", and "Dead ringer" are both derived from the notion of having a rope attached to a bell outside the coffin, which could alert people that the recently buried person is not yet deceased, however they are both false.[7]


  1. Dietrich H. "Taphophobia and resurrection mania"', Schweizer Arkiv für Neurologie, Neurochirurgie und Psychiatrie. 1977;120(2):195-203 PMID 905788
  2. Steven B. Harris, M.D. (September 1990). The Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Dead. Cryonics.
  3. "Just Dying to Get Out"
  4. Robert E. Lee's Mother
  5. A Short History of Security Coffins
  6. Improved burial case
  7. "Language (Life in the 1500s)"