Taphophobia: Fear of Waking inside your Grave

Being buried alive can still happened today, apparently!

Posted Sep 27, 2014

A story appeared this week in northern Greece about a woman who seems to have smothered to death inside her coffin. People visiting a Peraia cemetery heard banging and muffled shouts from inside a freshly dug grave. Startled, they notified police and began to dig to try to save her.

Too late. The woman, 45, whose funeral had taken place that day, had died from suffocation.

The doctor who’d certified the death was adamant that the decedent could not have alerted anyone. "I just don't believe it," this doctor reportedly stated. "We did several tests, including one for heart failure.” The woman had been in a state of rigor mortis, the physician insisted, which would have made it impossible for her to move or shout.

Yet it seems like an odd thing for cemetery visitors to just make up.

And it does happen. Near the end of 2000, in Kazakhstan, a man who’d been electrocuted was wrapped in a cloth before being buried in a shallow grave. He lay there for two days before he revived and dug himself out. He flagged down a car and went home, where he discovered his relatives indulging in his funeral feast.

Although medical techniques for determining death are generally adequate, some people still suffer from an intense dread of going into a deathlike coma from which they'll emerge only after they're buried. Taphophobia.

I wrote about some of these incidents in Cemetery Stories.

Edgar Allan Poe's horrifying story in 1850, "The Premature Burial," helped to fuel the belief that precautions were urgently needed. He posed the dilemma of a narrator with catalepsy who was obsessed with the possibility of being buried alive.

The story begins with the “fact” that physicians have documented one hundred such cases and then relates a tale about a woman who was not only laid out for three days after death but was buried only when the appearance of putrefaction had set in. It seemed perfectly reasonable to bury her. Yet when her husband opened the tomb three years later, it was obvious that she’d revived in the coffin.

Her terrified struggles had knocked it off its shelf and broken it open. She’d then used part of the broken wood to strike at the iron door of the vault. In the process, she’d caught her shroud on the door and finally expired while hanging from her clothing.

Poe's narrator describes what people fear about such an experience: "The unendurable oppression of the lungs, the stifling fumes from the damp earth, the clinging to the death garments, the rigid embrace of the narrow house, the blackness of the absolute Night, the silence like a sea that overwhelms, the unseen but palpable presence of the Conqueror Worm…" 

For many people during this era, Poe’s tale was truly horrifying, if only because there were such stories, for real.

During the late 1800s, a man whose crypt was reopened two months after his interment was found lying on his face, the glass on his coffin shattered, and his fists clenched over handfuls of his own hair. A child who had sickened and apparently died was put into a tomb. When it was opened later to inter someone else, her skeleton was found lying near the door.

The more such ideas were passed around, the more people looked for ways to avoid being mistaken for dead.

Some taphophobes requested that prior to burial their bodies be pierced in various places, such as straight through the heart, and in 1896 one group formed the Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial. Its members had a deal with certain physicians to perform specific tests that would ensure that they were dead.

Count Karnice-Karnicki patented a casket for taphophobes in 1897. The coffin was sealed, but had a tube running from the ground above to a ball that sat on the chest of the corpse. Any movement inside released a spring and opened up a box at the surface of the grave that then allowed air and light to come into the coffin. A bell inside that box would ring to summon help and a flag signaled the need for a gravedigger. 

Such fears have diminished with improved medical procedures, but we still hear stories like the one in Greece. I know of at least two in the past decade of people waking up in body bags who were thought to be dead. Right here in America.

And not everyone is happy to find out that a mistake has been made.

In 1993 in South Africa, a “dead” man was prepared for burial. After two days, he regained consciousness in the coffin and realized he was about to be sealed away. Frantically he knocked on the box and an attendant helped him to get out. However, when he went home to his fiancé, she was so certain that he was a zombie she refused to let him in.

More Posts