Cremation or Premature Burials
Creative: Cattie Khoury
Published: August 26, 2012
For this week’s blog, we are going to step away from talking about cremation and take a trip back into the 18th and 19th century. As you know, if you have already been reading these blogs, cremation was not yet a popular method for handling the deceased during these centuries in almost all modern countries such as the United States and Europe. The proper method for burial in these countries during these eras was in ground burial.
During this time, a severe cholera epidemic was surfacing. At this time there was no cure or vaccine for cholera. Many people lapsed into a state that was deathlike because of the sickness. This state was extremely convincing, which according to rumors, caused accidental, premature burials. That means, people were reportedly being buried alive. This sparked an enormously widespread fear through people of being buried alive. This fear sparked something else, a plethora of inventions that were made to prevent permanent, premature burial. These inventions were made so that if someone was accidentally buried alive, they had a way to get out or to alert people above the ground that they were alive down in the ground.
In the 1790’s, one of the first safety coffins was invented by the demand of Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick. It was created before his death in 1792. This version was seemingly simple. This coffin had a window installed into it so that light was able to come in. There was also an air tube inserted into it so that those buried in the coffin had a fresh supply of air coming in. The final adjustment made to this coffins was instead of it being nailed down, a lock was fitted to the coffin. The keys to the lock were to be carried by the Duke’s shroud.
The next version of the safety coffins was made a mere 6 years later, in 1798. This version was created by a German priest whose name was P.G. Pessler. He believed that all safety coffins should be made with a tube inserted in it. From this tube, a cord would run from within the coffin all the way up to a church’s bells. This way if a person was accidentally buried alive, all of the people who could hear the church bells would be alerted that someone was buried alive. However, this idea was highly impractical. There is only one set of church bells per church, but many deceased bodies needing safety coffins. All of the coffins would be aligned with strings ringing the same bells. If those bells were rung, it would be extremely difficult to decipher which coffin had rung the bell. Despite the impracticality of this invention, it ignited the preceding version of safety coffins that alerted the public of a premature burial through the sounding of bells.
In 1829, Dr Johann Gottfried Taberger designed a safety coffin that used its own individual bell used to alert night watchmen. This casket was made with a string and a bell. The string was long enough to reach the person in the coffin’s feet, as it was tied to the person’s head, hands and feet, and it was tied to a bell that was placed above the ground. This bell had its own housing, which was made to prevent any accidental ringing. If the person that was buried was to wake, their movement alone would signal the bells. They could ring the bell even louder by simply pulling on the string. This system was designed to alert those who were above the ground that they were alive. Some cemeteries would hire a watchmen who would monitor the grounds and listen for ringing bells. The idea was a good one, but the reality of the invention wasn’t as great as the idea. During a corpse’s natural decomposition, the corpse swells and shifts positions. This natural swelling and shifting could place tension on the cords and that alone could cause the bells to ring, falsely alerting those who were around. Besides that, not many cemeteries invested in those nighttime employees who would listen for bells. Which means, if the bells were to ring, there typically wasn’t anyone around to hear the bell.
Another one of these inventions, which was made in the 1930’s, was a grave that was not dependent on an outsider to relieve the person inside the grave from its chambers. These graves were built typically on the sides of hills with an opening in the front. This bodies were laid parallel to the ground and while the contents of these graves were still technically underground, the openings were out of the ground. These openings acted like doors made from thick metal that could be opened from the inside, but not the outside. On the inside, there was a wheel that could be turned by the person on the inside to open the door so that if the person was buried alive, they could get out.
This was roughly around the time the widespread fear of being buried alive ended, along with the safety coffin frenzy. This could possibly be because medical technology was advancing, which made the determination of death certain. During the 18th and 19th century, they did not have medical technology that could determine death for certain how we can today.
Unfortunately, despite all of the great safety coffin inventions, not one of the inventions have been recorded or documented anywhere to have saved someone from being buried alive.
For now, our being buried alive is almost certainly pronounced dead.