7 Weird Graveyard Inventions

iStock
iStock

If necessity is the mother of invention, death is its eccentric aunt. For centuries, humankind has been preoccupied with what happens to our bodies after we die. The result has been a grim procession of inventions intended to make our graves safer, sturdier, and in some cases, easier to flee. Some of these grave innovations are practical, but others border on the bizarre and downright creepy. Here are seven of the strangest.

1. THE SAFETY COFFIN

Leave it to the Victorians to fear being buried alive more than death itself. In the late 19th century, books and newspapers were full of stories of terrifying premature internments, although it's not clear how many actually occurred. The solution to the possibly-made-up problem was the safety coffin, or coffin alarm. These devices—of which there were several—most often employed a bell or other noise-making apparatus that could be manipulated by a person trapped inside a buried coffin to alert those aboveground. Many also included a hatch that would let fresh air into the coffin, allowing the prematurely buried victim to breathe until rescue came. One of the more famous of these devices was created by the Russian Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki, and included a spring-loaded compartment atop the grave that would pop open like a jack-in-the box if there were any bodily movement below.

2. THE ESCAPE COFFIN

A more elaborate cousin of the safety coffin, escape coffins were built for those prematurely declared dead who didn’t have the patience to wait for someone else to come to the rescue. One such coffin, patented in 1843 and intended for use in vaults, had a spring-loaded lid that could be opened with the merest movement of a head or hand. Another more extreme example was the burial vault retired firefighter Thomas Pursell designed for himself and his family at a cemetery in Westport, Pennsylvania. The ventilated vault could be opened from the inside by a patented wheel lock. Pursell was indeed buried there in 1937, but so far he has not emerged.

3. THE WAITING MORTUARY

The waiting mortuary, a slightly more practical approach to avoiding premature burial, was most popular in Germany in the 19th century. Corpses were laid out inside these stately halls and monitored day and night for signs of revival or, more often than not, decomposition. Sometimes, strings attached to bells would be tied around fingers and toes—a precursor to the coffin alarm. When Mark Twain visited one in Munich in 1880, he wrote:

"There were 36 corpses of adults in sight, stretched on their backs on slightly slanted boards, in three long rows—all of them with wax-white, rigid faces, and all of them wrapped in white shrouds. Along the sides of the room were deep alcoves, like bay windows, and in each of these lay several marble-visaged babes, utterly hidden and buried under banks of fresh flowers ... Around a finger of each of these fifty still forms, both great and small, was a ring, and from the ring a wire led to the ceiling, and thence to a bell in a watch-room yonder, where, day and night, a watchman always sits alert and ready to spring to the aid of any of that pallid company who, waked out of death, shall make a movement."

4. CAST-IRON COFFINS

Inventor Almond D. Fisk was less concerned with premature burial than he was with delayed burial, such as when someone died overseas and transporting the body home would take weeks. In 1848, he patented his cast-iron coffin, which could preserve bodies for extended periods of time. Similar in shape to an Egyptian sarcophagus, these ornate coffins also included hinged faceplates, which could be opened to reveal the face of the deceased through a pane of glass.

5. REUSABLE COFFINS

Around 1784, Austria’s Emperor Joseph II grew so concerned about Vienna’s extravagant funerals (not to mention dwindling wood supplies and cemetery space) that he instituted the use of a reusable coffin. The wooden coffin contained a trap door in the bottom through which corpses, wrapped in sacks, would be discreetly dropped into their graves. The coffin could then be reused for other funerals, which would save wood and hasten decomposition of Vienna’s dead. The Viennese, however, were outraged at such an invention, and the drop-bottom coffin order was rescinded, meaning that reusable coffins never actually became part of Viennese funeral customs.

6. MORTSAFES

A mortsafe at St Mary's Churchard, Holystone, England
johndal, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the 19th century, grave robbers known as "resurrection men" prowled UK and American cemeteries looking for fresh corpses to sell to medical schools. The problem was especially grave, pun intended, in Scotland. Thus came the mortsafe, a heavy wrought-iron cage or stone placed over gravesites to prevent the theft of corpses. It would be placed over the grave for a few weeks until the robbers lost interest, and then sometimes moved to a new grave. Although the practice of grave robbing diminished in the UK after the Anatomy Act of 1832, which gave medical schools a legal way to obtain cadavers for study, mortsafes would survive a few more decades. They can sometimes still be seen on older burials, and are occasionally misinterpreted as cages meant to keep vampires from rising from their graves.

7. COFFIN TORPEDOS

When incidents of corpse stealing increased after the U.S. Civil War, trigger-happy Americans had a more explosive way of theft-proofing their graves—the coffin torpedo. Contrary to what its name implies, a coffin torpedo was either a greatly modified firearm that shot lead balls when triggered by the opening of the coffin lid or a landmine-like device that sat atop the coffin and would detonate if the grave was disturbed.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

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Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Even though Black Friday is still a few days away, Amazon is offering early deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

Kitchen

Instant Pot/Amazon

- Instant Pot Duo Plus 9-in-115 Quart Electric Pressure Cooker; $90 (save $40) 

- Le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron Signature Sauteuse 3.5 Quarts; $180 (save $120)

- KitchenAid KSMSFTA Sifter with Scale Attachment; $95 (save $75) 

- Keurig K-Mini Coffee Maker; $60 (save $20)

- Cuisinart Bread Maker; $88 (save $97)

- Anova Culinary Sous Vide Precision Cooker; $139 (save $60)

- Aicook Juicer Machine; $35 (save $15)

- JoyJolt Double Wall Insulated Espresso Mugs - Set of Two; $14 (save $10) 

- Longzon Silicone Stretch Lids - Set of 14; $13 (save $14)

HadinEEon Milk Frother; $37 (save $33)

Home Appliances

Roomba/Amazon

- iRobot Roomba 675 Robot Vacuum with Wi-Fi Connectivity; $179 (save $101)

- Fairywill Electric Toothbrush with Four Brush Heads; $19 (save $9)

- ASAKUKI 500ml Premium Essential Oil Diffuser; $22 (save $4)

- Facebook Portal Smart Video Calling 10 inch Touch Screen Display with Alexa; $129 (save $50)

- Bissell air320 Smart Air Purifier with HEPA and Carbon Filters; $280 (save $50)

Oscillating Quiet Cooling Fan Tower; $59 (save $31) 

TaoTronics PTC 1500W Fast Quiet Heating Ceramic Tower; $55 (save $10)

Vitamix 068051 FoodCycler 2 Liter Capacity; $300 (save $100)

AmazonBasics 8-Sheet Home Office Shredder; $33 (save $7)

Ring Video Doorbell; $70 (save $30) 

Video games

Nintendo

- Legend of Zelda Link's Awakening for Nintendo Switch; $40 (save $20)

- Marvel's Spider-Man: Game of The Year Edition for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $20)

- Marvel's Avengers; $27 (save $33)

- Minecraft Dungeons Hero Edition for Nintendo Switch; $20 (save $10)

- The Last of Us Part II for PlayStation 4; $30 (save $30)

- LEGO Harry Potter: Collection; $15 (save $15)

- Ghost of Tsushima; $40 (save $20)

BioShock: The Collection; $20 (save $30)

The Sims 4; $20 (save $20)

God of War for PlayStation 4; $10 (save $10)

Days Gone for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $6)

Luigi's Mansion 3 for Nintendo Switch; $40 (save $20)

Computers and tablets

Microsoft/Amazon

- Apple MacBook Air 13 inches with 256 GB; $899 (save $100)

- New Apple MacBook Pro 16 inches with 512 GB; $2149 (save $250) 

- Samsung Chromebook 4 Chrome OS 11.6 inches with 32 GB; $210 (save $20) 

- Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 with 13.5 inch Touch-Screen; $1200 (save $400)

- Lenovo ThinkPad T490 Laptop; $889 (save $111)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Tablet (64GB); $120 (save $70)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Kids Edition Tablet (32 GB); $130 (save $70)

- Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8 inches with 32 GB; $100 (save $50)

Apple iPad Mini (64 GB); $379 (save $20)

- Apple iMac 27 inches with 256 GB; $1649 (save $150)

- Vankyo MatrixPad S2 Tablet; $120 (save $10)

Tech, gadgets, and TVs

Apple/Amazon

- Apple Watch Series 3 with GPS; $179 (save $20) 

- SAMSUNG 75-inch Class Crystal 4K Smart TV; $998 (save $200)

- Apple AirPods Pro; $199 (save $50)

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Canon EOS M50 Mirrorless Camera with EF-M 15-45mm Lens; $549 (save $100)

DR. J Professional HI-04 Mini Projector; $93 (save $37)

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15 Moving Facts About Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987).
Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987).
Paramount Pictures

Steve Martin and John Candy starred in the holiday movie classic Planes, Trains and Automobiles, writer/director John Hughes’s first big foray away from writing about teenage angst. Martin played Neal Page, a marketing executive who is desperate to get back home to Chicago to see his wife and kids for Thanksgiving, but along the way is thoroughly aggravated by shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith (Candy) and the many, many, many mishaps that befall the two throughout their travels. Here are some facts about the film that are not pillows.

1. Planes, Trains and Automobiles was inspired by John Hughes’s own hellish trip trying to get from New York City To Chicago.

Before he became a screenwriter, Hughes used to work as a copywriter for the Leo Burnett advertising agency in Chicago. One day he had an 11 a.m. presentation scheduled in New York City on a Wednesday, and planned to return home on a 5 p.m. flight. Winter winds forced all flights to Chicago to be canceled that night, so he stayed in a hotel. A snowstorm in Chicago the next day continued the delays. The plane he eventually got on ended up being diverted to Denver. Then Phoenix. Hughes didn’t make it back until Monday. Experiencing such a hellish trip might explain how Hughes managed to write the first 60 pages of Planes, Trains and Automobiles in just six hours.

2. Howard Deutch was originally supposed to direct Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

Deutch directed Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful for Hughes. Hughes decided to direct himself after Steve Martin signed on. Deutch got to direct The Great Outdoors instead.

3. Steve Martin thought the script for Planes, Trains and Automobiles was too long.

The comedian, who had written his own screenplays, thought the 145-page length of the script was a lot for a comedy. When Martin asked Hughes where he thought they might cut scenes, Hughes was confused by the question. Martin later claimed that the first cut of Planes, Trains and Automobiles was four and a half hours long.

4. John Hughes acted out the entire movie to a publicist hoping to work on Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

Reid Rosefelt went in to meet Hughes for the unit publicist position. Rosefelt recalled in his blog that he found it strange, but admirable, that Hughes did not allow Rosefelt to see the script to the movie he would potentially work on and promote beforehand. After the two grew more comfortable with one another at their meeting, Rosefelt asked what the movie was about—he only knew Steve Martin and John Candy were starring and it was called Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Hughes then performed the entire movie for him. Rosefelt didn’t get the job.

5. John Candy arrived to shoot Planes, Trains and Automobiles with exercise equipment in tow.

On the first day of shooting, the crew brought in treadmills, weights, and other exercise equipment for Candy to use in his hotel suite. Martin said Candy didn’t use any of it.

6. The entirety of Planes, Trains and Automobiles was meant to be shot in Chicago, but there wasn’t enough snow.

Some exterior scenes were filmed in Buffalo, New York. Martin said that the cast and crew pretty much lived the plot of the movie. “As we would shoot, we were hopping planes, trains, and automobiles, trying to find snow.”

7. The constant delays on production on Planes, Trains and Automobiles were very beneficial to one actor.

In John Hughes: A Life in Film, Kirk Honeycutt wrote that one actor, who played a truck driver, was only supposed to have one line and work for one day. Hughes chose to keep him on standby. The actor ended up working enough days while the crew waited for the snow to come that he was able to make a down payment on a house. It’s very possible this was Troy Evans, who was uncredited, as the shy truck driver in the movie. He went on to appear, credited, on ER for the show’s final five seasons as Frank Martin.

8. Edie Mcclurg’s Planes, Trains and Automobiles improvisations impressed John Hughes.

McClurg, probably best known as Grace, Principal Rooney’s secretary in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, played the St. Louis car rental employee upon whom Neal dropped 18 F-bombs. For the first few takes, McClurg simply raised her finger and had a standard phone conversation with a customer. Then Hughes told her to improvise talking on the phone about Thanksgiving. She then came up with the stuff about needing roasted marshmallows and taking care of the crescent rolls because she can’t cook based on her own life. When she finished, Hughes asked her how she came up with those details so quickly. When McClurg explained she just got it from her own life just like he does with his scripts, he said, “Oh yeah!” She claims people to this day ask her to tell them they’re f*cked.

9. Steve Martin and Edie McClurg's F-bomb-filled exchange earned Planes, Trains and Automobiles an R rating.

That sweary tirade between Martin and McClurg is reportedly one of the scenes that made Martin want to make the movie. Its overuse of the word f*ck is also apparently what pushed the movie's rating from PG-13 to R.

10. In one scene in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Susan Page is watching She’s Having A Baby—another John Hughes movie.

In the scene that goes back and forth between Neal trying to sleep next to Del clearing his sinuses and Neal’s wife (Laila Robins) watching TV alone in their bed, she is somehow watching She’s Having a Baby, which wouldn’t be released in theaters until February of the following year. Kevin Bacon stars in that movie, and made a cameo in Planes as the guy who out-hustles Neal in getting a cab. Some people believe Bacon—who was officially listed in the credits as “Taxi Racer”—was playing his She’s Having a Baby character, Jake, in that scene.

11. A scene in a strip club was cut from Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

After their car blew up, Neal and Del went inside a strip club to use a phone, where Del got distracted by the dancers. Actress Debra Lamb didn’t know that her scene was cut until she went to a screening.

12. Jeri Ryan was cut from Planes, Trains and Automobiles, but her scene wasn’t.

It was the actress’s first role. She was one of the passengers on the bus ride and couldn’t help but laugh at Martin and Candy’s antics. They re-shot the scenes without her.

13. Elton John wrote a song for Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

Carlo Allegri, Getty Images

Elton John and lyricist Gary Osborne were almost finished writing the theme song when Paramount insisted on ownership of the recording master, which John’s record company would not allow. The song has never been released.

14. In the original ending of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Del followed Neal all the way home.

Hughes decided during the editing process that instead, John Candy’s character would be “a noble person” and finally take the hint from Martin’s character, and let Neal return home alone, before Neal has a change of heart and finds Del again.

15. In the scene where Neal thinks about Del on the train in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Steve Martin didn’t know the camera was on.

In order to get the new ending he wanted, Hughes and editor Paul Hirsch went back to look for footage they previously didn’t think would be used. Hughes had kept the cameras rolling in between takes on the Chicago train, without his lead’s knowledge, while Martin was thinking about his next lines. Hughes thought Martin had a “beautiful expression” on his face in that unguarded moment.