BURIED ALIVE

 
Fear of being buried alive is called taphephobia.  Also known as live burial, premature burial, and vivisepulture, it’s been around forever—and is with us still!  Those buried alive often die of asphyxiation, dehydration, starvation, or hypothermia.  If fresh air is available, the buried person can last days.

 

This guy seems pretty happy about the situation.
Fear of being buried alive reached a peak in 19th century England.  More than 120 books in at least five languages were written about it, as well as methods to distinguish life from death.  (See below.)

 

Harry Clarke’s illustration for Premature Burial by Edgar Allen Poe
A Fine Literary Tradition
 
Consider Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Premature Burial,” The Fall of the House of Usherand Berenice.  More recently, Stephen King’s 1987 novel Misery includes Paul Sheldon’s Misery’s Return, a book within a book.
Farinata and Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti in Level 6 of the Inferno, painted by Suloni Robertson

Dante’s Inferno references several classes of sinners punished with some form of eternal burial:

  • The Sullen in Level 5 are kept just below the waters of the River Styx, forever near drowning.
  • The Heretics in Level 6 are trapped in flaming tombs.
  • Murderers in Level 7 are covered by a river of boiling blood.
  • In Level 8 (where all types of fraud are punished)
    • Flatterers are encased in human excrement.
    • Simonists are buried head-first while flames burn their feet.
    • Fraudulent Counselors are encased in flames.
  • The Treacherous in Level 9 are buried in ice of varying levels depending on their sin.
Accidental or Unintentional Burial
 
It’s easier to handle if you bring a buddy along.
Reports of being buried alive date back to the fourteenth century.  In spite of hype and hysteria, as late as the 1890s patients have been documented as being declared dead and accidentally sent to a morgue or encased in a steel box, only to “come back to life” when the coffin is dropped, the grave is opened by grave robbers, or embalming  or dissection has begun.

 

“Life preserving coffin in doubtful cases of actual dead,” a safety-coffin model by Christian Eisenbrandt
During centuries when embalming wasn’t common practice, coffins were mostly for the rich, and rapid burial was the norm especially during major pestilences such as cholera, bubonic plague, and smallpox.  In these cases, rapid burial was an attempt to curb the spread of the disease.

 

The Great Plague by Rita Greer
Several medical conditions can contribute to the presumption of death: catalepsy, coma, and hypothermia.

 

How to Know When Someone Is Really Dead

 

Snoring is a pretty good sign. (This is actually the Fourpence Coffin flophouse, the first homeless shelter in London.)
Jan Bondeson, author of Buried Alive, identified methods of verifying death used by 18th and 19th century physicians.  (Personal reaction: shudder!)  The methods were any acts the physician thought would rouse the unconscious patient, virtually all imaginatively painful.
  • Soles of the feet sliced with razors
  • Needles jammed under toenails
  • Bugle fanfares and “hideous Shrieks and excessive Noises”
  • Red hot poke up the rectum
  • Application of nipple pincers
  • A bagpipe type invention to administer tobacco enemas
  • Boiling Spanish wax poured on patients’ foreheads and warm urine poured into the mouth
  • A crawling insect inserted into patient’s ear
  • A sharp pencil up the presumed cadaver’s nose
  • Tongue pulling (manual or mechanical) for at least three hours

 

The traditional Irish wake was (and is) an occasion for family and friends to celebrate the life of the deceased while watching the body for signs of movement.

Most agreed that the most reliable way to be sure someone was dead was to keep an eye on the body for a while.  To that end, waiting at least 72 hours from apparent death to burial was mandated.  In the mid-1800s, Munich had ten “waiting mortuaries” where bodies were stored awaiting putrefaction.  Each body was rigged to bells to summon an attendant should the corpse come back to life.

 

Waiting morgues, like this one in Paris, were often left open to the public for macabre entertainment

We presume that modern science has surpassed this sort of mistake, defining death as brain death.  Even so, earthquakes and other natural disasters often result in people being accidentally buried alive.

 
Victims of the 2018 tsunami in Nepal were not so fortunate.

But Wait: Sometimes People Are Buried Alive on Purpose!

From the Museum of Torture in Venice

Sometimes live burial is a method of execution.  Documented cases exist for China, German tribes, Persia, Rome, Denmark, Faroe Islands, Russia, Netherlands, Ukraine, and Brazil.

Confucian scholars were buried alive while their books were burned in 3rd century BCE
Interestingly, most of the laws demanding live burial as a form of execution were for crimes committed by women.  Men convicted of comparable crimes were more likely to be beheaded.

 

Vestal Virgins were sealed in caves for breaking their vow of chastity, as shown in this painting by Pietro Saja
When death was not enough, often a spike was driven through the body of the person executed by live burial, perhaps as a way to prevent the person from becoming an avenging, undead Wiedergänger.

 

In some parts of the world, live burial is still practiced as a means of execution.  Often, the victim is buried upright with only their head above ground.  In these cases, death is very slow and painful, often the result of dehydration or wounds caused by animal scavengers.

 

And sometimes live burials are another horrific act of war.
Codice Casanatense, a Portugese artist, recorded this scene of a Hindu widow being sent alive to her husband’s grave.

Very rarely people willingly arrange to be buried alive, for any number of reasons.  Sometimes it is to demonstrate their ability to survive it.  The Indian government has made voluntary live burials illegal because the people who try it so often die.  In 2010, a Russian man was buried to try to overcome his fear of death, but was crushed to death by the weight of the earth over him.

Four “lucky” contest winners

There are even performances in which people have an opportunity to be buried alive for fifteen or twenty minutes.  As a publicity stunt for the opening of the 2010 film Buried, a lottery was held for a few fans to have a very unique viewing experience.  Four winners were blindfolded, driven to the middle of nowhere, and buried alive in special coffins equips with screens on which they could watch the film.  (A 2003 episode of “Mythbusters” demonstrated that, even if a person buried alive was able to break out of a coffin, they would be crushed or asphyxiated by the resulting dirt fall.)

There is now a monument to Mick Meaney on Kilburne Street.

Irish barman Mick Meaney remained buried under Kilburne Street in London for 61 days in 1968, mostly to win a bet.  Tubes to the surface allowed air and food to reach him in his temporary, underground prison.

Parents are often unwillingly volunteered for vivisepulture on the beach.
Bottom line for writers: consider a character being buried alive—or being threatened with it—as a way to up the tension. 
 
Live burial isn’t the only attention-worthy aspect of dead bodies.  For more, check out books such as these.

Writing War

american flag veteran's day
 
So, today is Veterans’ Day, which brings thoughts of the military, which brings thoughts of war. Both have been around forever, it seems, and have touched virtually everyone’s life either directly or indirectly—which means one or both are likely to have touched the lives of your characters.

 

Should you find yourself writing a scene dealing with the military, war, and/or their direct or indirect effects on characters and plot, get it right! So many of your potential readers know the details that if you get it wrong, you will immediately lose all credibility.

 

civil war life civil war america love and lust
Fortunately there are a number of resources available to assist you. My personal bookshelves are not comprehensive, but here are a few examples of what’s out there. Note the broad range of detail and focus, from the battlefield to the home front.

 

americans remember home front 1001 things world war ii
You can find resources for any war of interest, as well as any branch of any military, worldwide. My own interests tend toward the effects of war on individuals.

 

You can also focus on a subset of action and response.

 

women that wrote war in harms way

they fought like demons women soldiers civil war
[Source: Amazon]
 Regardless of any other choices you make, you will surely need authentic language, whether for dialogue or narrative. And therefore, I highly recommend a good dictionary.

 

war slang paul dickson
Takeaway for Writers: Yes, you must have engaging characters, tension, lots at stake, and action moving forward, but if you get the factual details wrong, you’ll lose your reader! Get it right with war and the military.

 

american flag veteran's day