Premature burial, also known as live burial, burial alive, or vivisepulture, means to be buried while still alive. Animals or humans may be buried alive accidentally or intentionally. The victim may accidentally be buried by others in the mistaken assumption that they are dead. Intentional burial may occur as a form of torture, murder, or execution; it may also occur with consent of the victim as a part of a stunt (with the intention to escape). Live burial is said to be one of the most widespread of human fears.
Premature burial leads to death through one or more of the following: asphyxiation, dehydration, starvation, or (in cold climates) hypothermia. Although human survival may be briefly extended in some environments as body metabolism slows, in the absence of oxygen, which is likely to be within one or two hours from burial time based on the consumption level, loss of consciousness will take place within twenty to thirty seconds and death by asphyxia within three minutes. Permanent brain damage through oxygen starvation is likely after a few minutes, even if the person is rescued before death. If fresh air is accessible in some way, survival is more likely to be in the order of a few days in the absence of serious injury.
A person trapped with fresh air to breathe can last a considerable time and burial has been used as a very cruel method of execution (as in case of Vestal Virgins who violated the oath of celibacy), lasting sufficiently long for the victim to comprehend and imagine every stage of what is happening (being trapped in total darkness with very limited or no movement) and to experience great psychological and physical torment including extreme panic. The medical term for the fear of being buried alive is taphephobia.
Unintentional live burial
At least one (almost certainly apocryphal) report of accidental burial dates back to the thirteenth century. The philosopher John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) was reportedly, upon the reopening of his tomb, found outside his coffin with his hands torn and bloody after attempting to escape.
Revivals of supposed "corpses" have been triggered by dropped coffins, grave robbers, embalming, and attempted dissections. Fearing premature burial, George Washington, on his deathbed, made his servants promise not to bury him until two days after his death. Folklorist Paul Barber has argued that the incidence of unintentional live burial has been overestimated, and that the normal, physical effects of decomposition are sometimes misinterpreted as signs that the person whose remains are being exhumed has revived in his or her coffin. Nevertheless, patients have been documented as late as the 1890s as accidentally being sent to the morgue or trapped in a steel box after erroneously being declared dead.
Newspapers have reported cases of exhumed corpses who appear to have been accidentally buried alive. On February 21, 1885, The New York Times gave a disturbing account of such a case. The victim was a man from Buncombe County whose name was given as "Jenkins." His body was found turned over onto its front inside the coffin, with much of his hair pulled out. Scratch marks were also visible on all sides of the coffin's interior. His family were reportedly "distressed beyond measure at the criminal carelessness" associated with the case. Another similar story was reported in The Times on January 18, 1886, the victim of this case being described simply as a "girl" named "Collins" from Woodstock, Ontario, Canada. Her body was described as being found with the knees tucked up under the body, and her burial shroud "torn into shreds."
"Safety coffins" were devised to prevent premature burial, although there is no evidence that any have ever been successfully used to save an accidentally buried person. On 5 December 1882, J. G. Krichbaum received US Patent 268693 for his "Device For Life In Buried Persons". It consisted of a movable periscope-like pipe which provided air and, when rotated or pushed by the person interred, indicated to passersby that someone was buried alive. The patent text refers to "that class of devices for indicating life in buried persons", suggesting that such inventions were common at the time.
Count Karnice-Karnicki of Belgium, after witnessing the revival of a friend's daughter as her coffin was lowered into the ground, patented a rescue device in 1897, which mechanically detected chest movement to trigger a flag, lamp, bell, and fresh air. Along similar lines, in the United Kingdom, various systems were developed to save those buried alive, including breakable glass panels in the coffin lid and pulley systems which would raise flags or ring bells on the surface. Without air supply, as in the Italian model, this naturally would be useless without vigilant guards above ground. As such, undertakers were hired to stay in the graveyard at night to watch out for such signals. In 1890, a family designed and built a burial vault at the Wildwood Cemetery in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, with an internal hatch to allow the victim of accidental premature burial to escape. The vault had an air supply and was lined in felt to protect a panic-stricken victim from self-inflicted injury before escape. Bodies were to be removed from the casket before interment.
Execution by burial
In ancient China, during the Warring States period, 400,000 soldiers of the Kingdom of Zhao were reported to have been buried alive after they surrendered to the armies of Qin in the Battle of Changping in 260 BC. During the reign of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi it is said that approximately 400 to 700 scholars were buried alive near the capital. They were condemned for saving books from destruction after an imperial ban on the classics, ordered by the emperor in order to strengthen his reign and secure his legitimization, by eliminating other social and historical narratives. After the emperor's death, the warlord Xiang Yu defeated Qin's armies at the Battle of Julu in 207 B.C., and is said to have ordered that the 200,000 surviving Qin soldiers be buried alive.
Tacitus, in his work Germania, records that German tribes practiced two forms of capital punishment; the first where the victim was hanged on trees, and another, where the victim was tied to a wicker frame, pushed face down into mud and buried. The first was used to make an example of traitors, the second was used for punishment of dishonourable or shameful crimes, such as cowardice or sodomy. According to Tacitus, the old Germans thought that crime against honour should be exposed, whereas infamy should be buried out of sight.
In ancient Rome, a Vestal Virgin convicted of violating her vows of celibacy was "buried alive" by being sealed in a cave with a small amount of bread and water, ostensibly so that the goddess Vesta could save her were she truly innocent. This practice was, strictly speaking, immurement (i.e., being walled up and left to die) rather than premature burial. According to Christian tradition, a number of saints were martyred this way, including Saint Castulus and Saint Vitalis of Milan.
In Denmark, in the 1269 promulgated Ribe city statute, a female thief was to be buried alive, and in the law by Queen Margaret I, adulterous women were to be punished with premature burial, men with beheading.
Within the Holy Roman Empire a variety of offenses including rape, infanticide and theft could be punished with live burial. For example the Schwabenspiegel, a law code from the 13th century, specified that the rape of a virgin should be punished by live burial (whereas the rapist of a non virgin was to be beheaded). Female murderers of their own employers also risked being buried alive. In Augsburg 1505, for example, a 12 year old boy and a 13 year old girl were found guilty of killing their master, in conspiracy with the cook. The boy was beheaded, and the girl and the cook were buried alive beneath the gallows. The jurist Henke observes that in the Middle Ages, live burial of women guilty of infanticide was a "very frequent" punishment in city statutes and Landrechten. For example he notes those in Hesse, Bohemia, Tyrol. The "Berlinisches Stadtbuch" records that between 1412 and 4710 women were buried alive there, and as late as in 1583, the archbishop of Bremen promulgated (alongside with the somewhat milder 1532 Constitutio Criminalis Carolina punishment of drowning) live burial as an alternate execution method for punishing mothers found guilty of infanticide.
As noted in, a woman buried alive would afterwards be impaled through the heart.This combined punishment of live burial and impalement was practiced in Nuremberg until 1508 also for women found guilty of theft, but the city council decided in 1515 that the punishment was too cruel, and opted for drowning instead. Impalement was, however, not always mentioned together with live burial. Eduard Osenbrüggen relates how a live burial of a woman convicted of infanticide could be carried out, and actually occurred. For example, in a 1570 case in Ensisheim from :
The verdict commanded the executioner to place the perpetrator in the grave alive The grave would be prepared by placing "two layers of thorns, the one beneath, the other above her." The executioner should prolong the life and torture by placing a bowl over the condemned's face; a hole in the bowl was attached to an air hose. Punishment was completed when the executioner jumped three times upon her and covered her with dirt. Dieter Furcht speculates that the impalement was not so much to be regarded as an execution method, but as a way to prevent the condemned from becoming an avenging, undead Wiedergänger.
In medieval Italy, unrepentant murderers were buried alive, head down, feet in the air, a practice referred to in passing in Canto XIX of Dante's Inferno. Into the seventeenth century in feudal Russia, live burial as execution method was known as "the pit" and used against women who were condemned for killing their husbands. In 1689, the punishment of live burial was changed to beheading Live burial of Jews in such countries in Poland and Ukraine is reported; for example some instances occurred during the Chmielnicki Massacre (1648-1649) in the Ukraine
On rare occasions, people have willingly arranged to be buried alive, reportedly as a demonstration of their controversial ability to survive such an event. In one story taking place around 1840, Sadhu Haridas, an Indian fakir, is said to have been buried in the presence of a British military officer and under the supervision of the local maharajah, by being placed in a sealed bag in a wooden box in a vault. The vault was then interred, earth was flattened over the site and crops were sown over the place for a very long time. The whole location was guarded day and night to prevent fraud and the site was dug up twice in a ten-month period to verify the burial, before the fakir was finally dug out and slowly revived in the presence of another officer. The fakir said that his only fear during his "wonderful sleep" was to be eaten by underground worms. However, according to current medical science, it is not possible for a human to survive for a period of ten months without food, water, and air. According to other sources the entire burial was 40 days long. The Indian government has since made the act of voluntary premature burial illegal, because of the unintended deaths of individuals attempting to recreate this feat.
During his career, Hungarian-American magician and escapologist Harry Houdini performed two variations on a "Buried Alive" stunt/escape. The first was near Santa Ana, California in 1917, and it almost cost Houdini his life. Houdini was buried, without a casket, in a pit of earth six feet deep. He became exhausted and panicky trying to dig his way to the surface and called for help. When his hand finally broke the surface, he fell unconscious and had to be pulled from the grave by his assistants. Houdini wrote in his diary that the escape was "very dangerous" and that "the weight of the earth is killing."
Houdini's second variation on Buried Alive was an endurance test designed to expose a mystical Egyptian performer who claimed to use supernatural powers to remain in a sealed casket for an hour. Houdini bettered that claim on August 5, 1926, by remaining in a sealed casket submerged in the swimming pool of New York's Hotel Shelton for an hour and a half. Houdini claimed he did not use any trickery or supernatural powers to accomplish this feat, just controlled breathing.
The practice of being buried alive is not uncommon in Russia; in 2010 a man died after being buried alive to try and overcome his fear of death but he was crushed to death by the earth on top of him. The following year, another Russian died after being buried overnight in a makeshift coffin "for good luck".
Myths and legends
St. Oran was a druid living on the Island of Iona in Scotland's Inner Hebrides. He became a follower of St. Columba, who brought Christianity to Iona (and mainland Europe) from Ireland in 563 AD. When St. Columba had repeated problems building the original Iona Abbey, citing interference from the Devil. St. Oran offered himself as a human sacrifice and was buried alive. He was later dug up and found to be still alive, but he uttered such words describing what of the afterlife he had seen and how it involved no heaven or hell, that he was ordered to be covered up again. The building of the abbey went ahead, untroubled, and St. Oran's chapel marks the spot where the saint was buried.
In the fourteenth through nineteenth centuries, a popular tale about premature burial in European folklore was the "Lady with the Ring". In the story, a woman who was prematurely buried awakens to frighten a grave robber who is attempting to cut a ring off her finger.
The TV show MythBusters tested the myth to see if someone could survive being buried alive for two hours before being rescued. Host Jamie Hyneman attempted the feat, but when his steel coffin began to bend under the weight of the earth used to cover it, the experiment was aborted. The MythBusters also tested whether someone could batter their way out of a buried coffin (as in Kill Bill Volume 2), and decided it was not remotely possible.
- Safety coffin
- List of premature obituaries
- Lazarus syndrome, spontaneous return of circulation after failed attempts at resuscitation
- Locked-in syndrome, medical condition described as "the closest thing to being buried alive"
- Edgar Allan Poe returned to the topic of being buried alive repeatedly in his writing. Stories that include the trope include "The Premature Burial", "The Fall of the House of Usher", and "Berenice".
- Bondeson (2002)
- Definition of Tapephobia
- For a variant, see Encycl. Brit. (1823)p.24
- E.g., Mikkelson (2006), Just Dying To Get Out
- Barber (1988)
- Mikkelson (2006), Just Dying To Get Out
- A Man Buried Alive
- Buried Alive
- Windsor (1921), p.47-48
- Tacitus, Church, Brodribb (1868), p.9
- Plutarch, Perrin (1914), Life of Numa Pompilius
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- Pufendorf (1757) p.649, p.57 in "Appendix Variorum Statutorum et Jurium", article 16
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- Osenbrüggen (1868), p.357
- German original: Das Urtheil befahl dem Nachrichter, die Thäterin lebendig in das Grab zu legen, "und zwo Wellen Dornen, die eine under, die ander uff sie,-, doch das es Irn zuvor ein Schüssel uff das Angesicht legen, in welche er ein Loch machen und ihr durch dasselb (damit sie desto lenger leben und bemelte böse Misshandlung abbiesen möge) ein Ror in Mund geben, volgens uff sie drey spring thun und sie darnach mit Erden bedecken solle
- Feucht (1967)
- Alighieri, O'Donnell (1852), p.120
- Muravyeva, Rosslyn, Tosi (2012), p.227 Source in Russian:
- Rosen (2005) Virtual Jewish History Tour: Ukraine, for example: Chmielnicki Massacre (1648-1649): "In the city of Mogila they slaughtered 800 nobles together with their wives and children as well as 700 Jews, also with wives and children. Some were cut into pieces, others were ordered to dig graves into which Jewish women and children were thrown and buried alive."
- For Poland, see Weinryb (1973)
- Chang (1997)
- Администрация (2008)ЙОРЦАЙТ
- Sciolino (2007) A Priest Methodically Reveals Ukrainian Jews’ Fate:"Other witnesses described how the German were allowed only one bullet to the back per victim and that the Jews sometimes were buried alive."
- Yad Vashem Killing Sites: Stalino Region, 1941-1942 January 11, 1942: "About 1,244 Jews (max.3,000) were shot to death or buried alive; the little children were poisoned. "
- Arem, Bock (2003)My Family Trip to Belarus Witness from Urechye: Mikhail remembered that in 1942, people who the Nazis thought wouldn't be helpful to them were marched to the forest and shot. Meyer Zalman and his family would be amongst the 625 families that shared this fate. In 1943 the remaining 93 Jewish families were buried alive. The ground moved for three days afterwards, but the Nazis heavily guarded the site.
- Witness Manie Feinholtz: On the morning of September 21, 1941, all the Jews were collected and sent out to work. During the course of the day, they discovered that some of them had been sent to dig a pit. More than a thousand of people were buried alive. World Holocaust ForumUman. Memoirs of Manie Feinholtz
- Cheong (2011), wordpress blog The Killing Fields – Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge
- Chang, Jung. "The Unknown Story of Mao." Anchor Books (2005) p.170
- Mysterious People Mind Power - Strange Cases of Suspended Animation
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- Bondeson (2001), pp.35-50
- MythBusters.Season 1: Episode 5,"Hammer Bridge Drop, Buried Alive, Cola", Original airdate: October 24, 2003.
- Alighieri, Dante; O'Donnell, E. (1852). Translation of the Divina Commedia. London: Thomas Richardson&Son.
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- "Pakistani police arrest man accused of burying alive his newborn daughter". Calgary Herald. Associated Press. 14 July 2012. Retrieved 16 July 2012.
- "Newborn girl 'buried alive by her father in Pakistan because she was deformed'". Daily Mail. 15 July 2012. Retrieved 16 July 2012.
- MacLeod Banks, M. (1931). "A Hebridean Version of Colum Cille and St. Oran". Folklore 42 (1): 55–60. JSTOR 1256410.
- "A Man Buried Alive". The New York Times (The New York Times). 20 February 1885.
- "Buried Alive". The New York Times (The New York Times). 19 January 1886.
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