History: Taphophobia & Living Burials

Mozelle Martin

No matter how diverse our backgrounds are, I bet most of us would agree that death is one of the most natural things in the world. Yet, that begs the question...

Why does the topic of death invoke such fear?

As a history buff, this seems like a great time to quote poet Dylan Thomas... "those wise men at their end... they do not go gentle into that good night"... and... "good men... rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Historical tales about this act, whether voluntary or not, have caused trepidation in many.

The first recorded case of a living burial gone wrong occurred in the 1st century. Magician Simon Magus buried himself, hoping that a miracle would save him. It didn't. However, how did he put himself in a box and then throw dirt on top of himself? For that truly is magic. Moreover, couldn't "magic" get him out of it? My guess is he wasn't a very talented magician.


Then, 13th-century author, Thomas A. Kempis, wrote in The Imitation of Christ that, when Magus was unearthed for reinterment and potential canonization, they found scratch marks on the internal lid. They also found wood embedded under his fingernails. Because Magus fought his fate, he was denied sainthood.

In 1674, Marjorie Halcrow supposedly died and was buried in a shallow grave by a church employee with ill intentions. The employee planned to excavate her later that day to steal her jewelry. However, when the bandit attempted to steal her ring by pruning her finger, Halcrow reacted with a moan and scared him off. After Halcrow was rescued, she raised two sons and outlived her husband by six years.

More recently, in 1996, Reverend Schwartz, a missionary, reentered the land of the living when he heard his favorite hymn being played during his funeral. As mourners passed by his closed casket, they could hear him singing along with them.

Can we avoid the inevitable?

I doubt any of us believe we will avoid passing ever. However, people in the 19th Century (and maybe even some today) took drastic steps to avoid suffering this same departure.

"Waking the dead" is the practice of sitting next to the deceased for several days until their funeral to be sure they have indeed departed. During this same (19th) century, terminally ill patients specified in their wills that - after their presumed demise - they be subjected to surgical incisions, scalded with boiling-hot water, impaled through the heart, branded with red-hot irons, and even guillotined to ensure they had genuinely departed from their body. Others had requested they be planted with various tools inside their caskets in case they needed to complete the job themselves.

Apparently, embalming is not foolproof.

Cardinal Somaglia experienced an unfortunate demise in 1837 after he passed out. Assuming he had passed away, plans for embalming were immediately implemented. After the embalmer made the first laceration into his chest, he noticed the Cardinal's heart still beating. The Cardinal reached up and batted the scalpel away to prevent further injury. However, the Cardinal died from his wound anyway.

In 1984, a newspaper article reported a pathologist was assigned to conduct a post-mortem examination. However, the corpse sat up and grabbed him by the throat. Although the pathologist died immediately due to shock, the "deceased" lived a few more years.

Underground safety precautions...

One guaranteed way to avoid this is to purchase a safety sarcophagus. Available since 1995, this $5,000+ box is equipped with a two-way microphone and speaker to enable the questionably departed to communicate with their loved ones. A flashlight, small oxygen tank, heart sensor, and cardiac stimulator are also available for an additional nominal fee.

However, for the extra-concerned folks, one method is guaranteed to work...

According to an advertisement in 2003 by the Cremation Society of Australia, the # 10 reason you should use their services is... "Cremation eliminates all danger of experiencing a living burial."

Do you suffer from taphophobia?

1885 Patent for Safety CoffinPhoto bySmithsonian Magazine

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Retired Forensic HWE / Military / Creative Junkie / Social Media Victim

Texas State

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