Dwelling on humanity’s fear of being buried alive, in 1866 the medical journal Lancet wrote: ‘truly there is something about the very notion of such a fate calculated to make one shudder, and to send a cold steam down one’s spine.’
This article was in response to reports that a case of premature burial was being discovered on average at least once a week. Mind you, taphophobia, the fear of being buried alive, is nothing new. The ancient Greeks would often slice off the odd finger, or two, of a recent corpse to determine death before burial, whilst the seventh century Byzantine Emperor Heraclius demanded his marble sarcophagus be left open for three days after his interment, just in case.
Nevertheless, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries such fears intensified, in part driven by publications such as Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented, by William Tebb and Edward Perry Vellum, and the founding of organisations like the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial in 1896. Before long inventors from across the globe would be patenting a host of apparatus aimed at preventing such a catastrophic fate.
So just how effective were these newly designed contraptions? Had they been field tested? How much did they cost? Could they be mass produced? From waiting mortuaries to corpse keys, to bells, whistles, ropes, open burial vaults, pipes, glass coffins, safety coffins and all manner of mechanical devices, this talk aims to explore some of the cunning methods concocted to prevent individuals from being buried alive. Furthermore, it will endeavour to answer the question why, in the face of modern medical advancements, such appliances are still being developed to this day.
Lorraine Evans is a Mortuary Archaeologist and Death Historian specialising in nonconformist/deviant funerary practices and the social history of death. A PhD Candidate at the IIPSGP, she has written several successful non-fiction history books as well as exhibiting her cemetery photographic work across Scotland. She can be followed on Twitter @MortePhoto or at lorraineevans.com
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