I guess this was a reasonable fear at the time, especially considering how our definition of “dead” has changed over the years. (Is it when the heart stops? When the person is no longer breathing? When there’s no brain activity?) The London Lancet newspaper (“the authority of the Royal Colleges of Physicians and of Surgeons in England”) did a little Mythbusting, as the Sunday magazine reported:
To be buried alive is beyond doubt a fate sufficiently dreadful to cause the blood to run cold at the mere thought. But in spite of all the stories to the contrary, it is a peril that in modern times is to all intents and purposes none-existent…
Speaking ex cathedra in an editorial article, the Lancet calls attention to the fact that in all the thousands of post mortem examinations which have been performed throughout the civilized world during the last fifty years, there has not been a single authenticated case of the supposed corpse under examination showing signs of life such as would invariably appear at the dissection of a living subject…
The London Lancet has performed a very valuable service in issuing this authoritative pronouncement which should receive the widest publicity, since it will rob death of some of the terrors which Edgar Allen Poe did so much to develop in his gruesome tales.
The photo in the article shows the “Duke of Saxe-Weimer, whose family has taken extreme precautions against being buried alive.” And apparently both Alfred Nobel and Hans Christian Andersen took steps to make sure they wouldn’t be buried alive. While their fears may have been groundless, Snopes.com says that it has happened.
FEAR OF BEING BURIED ALIVE IS GROUNDLESS: Popular Belief That Such a Fate is Common Exploded by the London Lancet, After Careful Study of the Matter (PDF)
From April 3, 1910
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