10 Famous People Who Were Afraid They'd Be Buried Alive

L'Inhumation Precipitee or "The Premature Burial" by Belgian artist Antoine Wiertz
L'Inhumation Precipitee or "The Premature Burial" by Belgian artist Antoine Wiertz
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The fear of being buried alive may be an ancient obsession—Pliny the Elder recorded cases among the Romans in his Natural History, written in 77 CE. But the golden age for this particular phobia was the Victorian era, when a sensationalist press met a public fascination with death (and some spotty science) to create a cottage industry of books and inventions devoted to premature burial and, most importantly, its prevention. Groups like the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial mushroomed, as did alarmist texts like One Thousand Persons Buried Alive by their Best Friends (published by a Boston doctor in 1883).

Getting trapped six feet deep inside a coffin was a favorite plot device for Gothic writers, as it was for Edgar Allan Poe, whose 1844 story, “The Premature Burial” (among other works), contributed to the public preoccupation with the subject. By 1891, Italian psychiatrist Enrico Morselli said fears of premature burial were so widespread it was time to create an official medical term [PDF]. He coined the word taphephobia (Greek for “grave” + “fear”). As Morselli described it, “The taphephobic … is an unhappy person, his every day, his every hour being tormented by the sudden occurrence of the idea of being buried alive.”

Rampant taphephobia also led to the creation of so-called “safety coffins,” designed to prevent premature burial. Germany alone saw more than 30 of these designs patented in the second half of the 19th century. Most involved some mechanism for communicating with the living, such as ropes and other tools that were used to ring bells above ground (some safety coffins also included supplies of air, food, and water). In 1822, one Dr. Adolf Gutsmuth of Seehausen, Altmark (modern-day Germany), demonstrated his design by having himself buried alive, where he “stayed underground for several hours and had a meal of soup, beer, and sausages served through the coffin's feeding tube.”

Ten famous taphephobes are listed below, and while not all were gripped by a full-blown phobia, they all made provisions to avoid being declared dead before their time.

1. Hans Christian Andersen

Author Hans Christian Andersen
Author Hans Christian Andersen
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

According to his biographer Jackie Wullschlager, Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen was deathly afraid of being buried alive. He spent his final days at the home of his friends Dorothea and Moritz Melchior in Copenhagen, and as the end neared, begged Dorothea to cut his veins after he’d breathed what appeared to be his last breath. Dorothea “joked that he could do as he had often done, and leave a note saying ‘I only appear to be dead' beside him.”

The note was a fixture of Andersen’s bedside table—some say he even wore it around his neck. Andersen was more than a little neurotic, and being buried alive was far from his only fear. According to Wullschlager, he also traveled with a rope in his luggage because he was afraid of fire, was terrified of dogs, and refused to eat pork out of fear of trichinosis.

2. Frédéric Chopin

Polish composer Frederic Chopin
Polish composer Frederic Chopin
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In his last written message, composer Frédéric Chopin is believed to have penned the words (in French): “The earth is suffocating. Swear to make them cut me open, so I won’t be buried alive.” (Some biographers translate the scrawled word “earth” as “cough”—Chopin was diagnosed with tuberculosis.) Chopin’s precise cause of death has never been determined, though researchers have long wanted to study his heart, entombed in alcohol in the pillar of a Warsaw church, to test the theory that he might have died of cystic fibrosis.

3. George Washington

George Washington
George Washington
Three Lions/Getty Images

A few hours before he died, George Washington said to his secretary: "I am just going. Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the Vault in less than three days after I am dead." The request wasn't uncommon for his time: Before the invention of modern stethoscopes, the onset of putrefaction—which generally happens to corpses within a couple of days—was the only sure sign of death.

His nephew, United States Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, was even more explicit in his protections against premature burial. He told his doctor: “[M]y thumbs are not to be tied together—nor anything put on my face or any restraint upon my Person by Bandages, &c. My Body is to be placed in an entirely plain coffin with a flat Top and a sufficient number of holes bored through the lid and sides—particularly about the face and head to allow Respiration if Resuscitation should take place and having been kept so long as to ascertain whether decay may have occurred or not, the coffin is to be closed up.”

4. Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Victorian novelist and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton is to blame for the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night.” (The line has since spawned the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, where entrants compete each year to create the worst opening lines in literature.) But spare some pity for the guy: He was so concerned about one day waking up in a coffin that he asked for his heart to be punctured before he was buried, just in case.

5. Alfred Nobel

Alfred Nobel
Alfred Nobel
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Alfred Nobel was the inventor of dynamite. Although invented for non-military purposes, he felt that his invention would help bring about peace by making war unpalatable.The Nobel Prizes were created by his will, which left the bulk of his vast estate to the creation of a fund for prizes awarded to those who “conferred the greatest benefit on mankind" in the preceding year. The final portion of Nobel’s will, however, reflected a different preoccupation. He wrote: "It is my express wish that following my death my veins shall be opened, and when this has been done and competent Doctors have confirmed clear signs of death, my remains shall be cremated in a so-called crematorium.”

6.Auguste Renoir

Auguste Renoir
Auguste Renoir 
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

According to a memoir by his son Jean Renoir, the French painter Auguste Renoir repeatedly expressed a fear of being buried alive. His son insisted a doctor do "whatever was necessary" to ensure the artist was really and truly dead before being buried.

7. Arthur Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer
Arthur Schopenhauer 
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

According to the historian Jan Bondeson, the influential German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer "freely admitted to a fear of premature interment.” He requested that his corpse stay aboveground for five days, so it would be good and rotten before burial.

8. Nikolai Gogol

Russian author Nikolai Gogol (famous for his short story “The Overcoat” and the novel Dead Souls) was both fascinated and terrified by the prospect of premature burial. He wrote in a letter to a friend that he was amazed humans could stay in a trance and see, hear, and feel, without being able to do anything to prevent premature burial. His will specified that he not be buried until he was putrefying and without a heartbeat.

Supposedly, when Gogol was exhumed several decades later (Russian authorities had decided to demolish the cemetery where he’d been buried), his body had shifted and was lying on its side, giving rise to a legend that his worst fear had come true—he’d been buried alive. While it’s tempting to believe such a dramatic story, corpses can shift after death thanks to putrefaction and earth movements.

9. Johann Nepomuk Nestroy

According to Bondeson, Austrian writer Johann Nepomuk Nestroy took elaborate precautions against premature burial:

In his will, he declared that the risk of premature burial was the only thing he feared in his present situation and that his studies of the literature on this subject had taught him that the doctors could not be relied on to distinguish dead people from living ones. His body was to be kept in an open coffin for two days, in a waiting mortuary with a signaling apparatus that would herald any signs of life. Even after burial, the coffin lid was not to be nailed shut.

10.Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield

Philip Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, was a British statesman and wit who is now perhaps best known for the letters to his illegitimate son that he wrote almost daily for 30 years, beginning in 1737. (Not everyone was a fan: After the letters were first published in 1774, Samuel Johnson wrote that they taught "the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing-master.") While not exactly crippled by a fear of premature burial, Stanhope made reference to the predicament in a letter to his son’s wife written in 1769: “All I desire for my own burial is not to be buried alive; but how or where, I think, must be entirely indifferent to every rational creature."

This story was first published in 2015 and republished in 2019.

How 7 Places Around the World Celebrate Thanksgiving

wiesdie/iStock via Getty Images Plus
wiesdie/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Thanksgiving seems like a holiday that's as American as apple pie, or pumpkin pie for that matter. But actually, there are variants of this day all around the world. Their meanings, dates, and customs may vary, but they all revolve around the concept of gratitude.

1. Germany

A religious holiday that often takes place on the first Sunday of October, Erntedankfest is essentially a harvest festival that gives thanks for a good year and good fortune. In rural areas, the harvest aspect might be taken more literally, but churches in cities also hold festivities. This might include a procession with an Erntekrone, a harvest crown made of grain, flowers, and fruit. Although turkeys are making inroads, fattened up chickens (die Masthähnchen), hens (die Poularde), castrated roosters (der Kapaun), and geese (die Gans) are favored for the feast.

2. Japan

Kinrō Kansha no Hi is a national public holiday that Japan celebrates every November 23. Derived from ancient harvest festival rituals named Niinamesai, its modern meaning is more tied to a celebration of hard work and community involvement, hence its translation: Labor Thanksgiving Day. While Niinamesai's traditions reach back thousands of years, Kinrō Kansha no Hi was created officially in 1948. It was intended to celebrate the rights of workers in post-World War II Japan. Today it’s celebrated with labor organization-led festivities, and children creating crafts and gifts for local police officers.

3. Canada

Arising from the same European origins of harvest festivals that led to the United States's version, Canadian Thanksgiving was first celebrated in 1578, when English explorer Martin Frobisher gave thanks for his fleet's safe travels in present-day Nunavut. Parliament made it a national holiday in 1879. But in 1957, Parliament moved it from November 6, declaring, "A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed."

4. Grenada

The West Indian island's version of Thanksgiving shares no origin with America's, and yet would not exist without the United States. Held on October 25 every year, Grenada's Thanksgiving marks the anniversary of the 1983 U.S. military invasion to restore order after the death of socialist leader Maurice Bishop. American soldiers who were stationed in the country the following month told locals about their upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, its signature feast, and its intention to focus on gratitude. To show their own gratitude, the people of Grenada worked in secret to surprise the soldiers with meals like those they longed for, complete with turkey and all the fixings. Today, the holiday is celebrated in formal ceremonies of remembrance.

5. Liberia

A variation on America's Thanksgiving can be found in the West African nation of Liberia, which was founded in the 19th century by freed slaves from the U.S. The holiday is celebrated primarily by Christians on the first Thursday of November. Liberians fill their churches with baskets of local fruits like bananas, papayas, mangoes, and pineapples; an auction for the baskets is held after the service, and then families retreat to their homes to feast. Concerts and dancing have evolved as a distinctive part of Liberia's Thanksgiving traditions.

6. The Netherlands

Before the Pilgrims boarded the Mayflower for the New World, they lived in Leiden in the Netherlands, where they settled after leaving England to escape religious persecution. They lived and worked in Leiden from 1609 to 1620. The Dutch have claimed influence on several elements of colonial American life from this contact, including civil marriages, ladder-back chairs, and wood-planked house construction. Some even suggest the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving found inspiration in Leiden's annual commemoration of the breaking of the Spanish siege of 1574. Regardless, the people of Leiden still celebrate the American settlers who once lived there with a non-denominational church service on the fourth Thursday of November. Afterwards, cookies and coffee are offered [PDF].

7. Norfolk Island

Like Grenada, this small and remote Pacific Island that sits between Australia and New Zealand owes its Thanksgiving to contact with the U.S., specifically with its whalers in the mid-1890s. It began when American trader Isaac Robinson proposed decorating the All Saints Church with palm leaves and lemons, hoping to attract whalers to a Thanksgiving service/celebration. Though Robinson passed away before the following Thanksgiving, the tradition caught on. Now on the last Wednesday of November, families bring fruit and vegetables to the church to celebrate, tying cornstalks to pews, and decorating the altar with fresh flowers. Where they would once recollect their offerings afterwards, now these are sold to raise money for the church.

12 Epic Facts About David Lynch's Dune

Kyle MacLachlan stars in David Lynch's Dune (1984).
Kyle MacLachlan stars in David Lynch's Dune (1984).
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

In 1984, more than a decade of development hell culminated in the release of Dune, the long-awaited, big-screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction novel about a messianic figure rising from a desert planet where a mysterious spice was harvested. After several different filmmakers tried (and failed) to bring it to the screen, Dune finally arrived via David Lynch, a then up-and-coming filmmaker who’d never been tested on a film of that size and scope.

The result was one of the most fascinating cinematic messes of the 1980s, the product of a tricky adaptation process, editorial clashes, and a filmmaker who never felt satisfied with the work he was doing under the watchful eye of his producers. In celebration of its 35th anniversary, here are a dozen facts about the making of Dune, from last-minute casting choices to battles over the final cut.

1. It took years to get Dune made.

Though Dune didn’t make it to the big screen until 1984, the journey from page to film actually began more than a decade earlier with producer Arthur P. Jacobs, best known for science fiction hits like Planet of the Apes. Jacobs announced his production of Dune in 1972, seven years after Frank Herbert’s novel was initially published. Jacobs’s production eventually unraveled and the producer passed away in 1973, leading to an effort from French producers to get the film made. That, too, eventually fell apart, leaving the rights to be claimed by yet another producer.

By the late 1970s, producer Dino De Laurentiis had purchased the rights to Dune, hoping to make the film with his daughter Rafaella, who adored Frank Herbert’s original novel. Then came the problem of finding a director, which Dune had struggled with before.

2. Several directors tried to make Dune.

Back in 1972, when Jacobs was working to get his adaptation of Dune off the ground, he announced that director Haskell Wexler (Medium Cool) would direct the film. Ultimately, the adaptation proved too unwieldy and costly for Jacobs to mount, and the rights were passed along to French producers who’d purchased them for director Alexandro Jodorowsky, best known at the time for his surreal Western El Topo.

Jodorowsky launched an extravagantly ambitious plan to adapt Dune into something that was very much his own vision, conceiving the project as an epic that would run as long as 14 hours, with a soundtrack by Pink Floyd and a cast including everyone from his own son Brontis as Paul Atreides to Orson Welles and Salvador Dalí as the Emperor. After three years in pre-production, Jodorowsky had already burned through much of the film’s budget, and the project stalled while gaining its own legendary reputation. Jodorowsky’s vision for the project was ultimately immortalized in the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune.

In 1980, with De Laurentiis now driving the project, the director’s chair was offered to Ridley Scott, then fresh off his own sci-fi success with Alien. Scott was interested, but several factors—including Universal Pictures’ anxiety over the project’s budget—led him to ultimately walk away in favor of yet another sci-fi project: Blade Runner.

With Scott out, Dino and Rafaella De Laurentiis went searching for another director. That’s when they saw a new historical drama called The Elephant Man.

3. David Lynch was hired for Dune because of The Elephant Man.

A photo of David Lynch
Getty Images

At the end of 1980, David Lynch only had two feature films to his name: The experimental nightmare Eraserhead and the acclaimed historical drama The Elephant Man, both of which were black-and-white films that showcased Lynch’s knack for striking visuals. The Elephant Man catapulted Lynch into mainstream visibility and critical acclaim. The film earned eight Academy Award nominations, four Golden Globe nominations, and won three BAFTAs, including Best Film. It also drew the eyes of Dino and Rafaella De Laurentiis, who saw Lynch as the perfect up-and-coming visual stylist to tackle Dune. Despite their love of The Elephant Man, the De Laurentiises did not go back and watch Eraserhead until after Lynch was hired.

“If I had seen it without knowing him, I probably would have walked out,” Rafaella De Laurentiis later said of Lynch’s debut feature.

4. David Lynch turned down Star Wars to make Dune.

After The Elephant Man became a massive critical success, Lynch began work on the film that would become Blue Velvet, but at the same time other filmmakers were looking at the director to take on more commercial projects. According to Lynch, he was at one point considering working on an adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon (which was finally adapted as Manhunter by Michael Mann in 1986), but an even bigger offer had also arrived on his table. George Lucas was looking for a filmmaker to take on directing duties for his third Star Wars film, and wanted Lynch.

“I went to meet George Lucas, who had offered me the third Star Wars to direct, but I’ve never even really liked science fiction,” Lynch later recalled. “I like elements of it, but it needs to be combined with other genres. And, obviously, Star Wars was totally George’s thing.”

So, Lynch turned down what would become Return of the Jedi, ultimately in favor of taking on Dune.

5. David Lynch hadn’t heard of Dune before he was offered the film.

David Lynch, despite his leaning toward various genre quirks in his works, was never a particular fan of science fiction, which put him in an interesting position in the early 1980s when he was offered two major science fiction projects in the wake of The Elephant Man’s success. He was so out of the loop on major sci-fi stories, in fact, that when Dino De Laurentiis called him, he had a difficult time understanding exactly what he was being offered.

“And Dino says, ‘I want you to read this book, Dune,’” Lynch recalled. “I thought he said ‘June,’ you know, and I said, ‘June’? He said, ‘No, Dune.’ And so then a friend of mine said, ‘Man! That is a great science fiction book,’ and I said, ‘I know, that’s what I heard.’ So I started reading it.”

Lynch went on to get so deep into Dune that he wrote half a dozen drafts of the screenplay, and consulted frequently with author Frank Herbert.

6. Kyle MacLachlan was cast in Dune because he was an unknown actor.

Kyle MacLachlan and Ramón Menéndez in Dune (1984)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

When it came time to cast Dune, Lynch and Rafaella De Laurentiis knew it was important to strike the right tone with the actor who would play the film’s hero, Paul Atreides. To do this, they decided that instead of pursuing a known star, they would seek out an unknown young actor who could lend a somewhat mysterious presence to the film. De Laurentiis sprang into action and organized casting agents for a nationwide search to find the film’s Paul. While casting scout Elizabeth Leusting was combing the Pacific Northwest for talent, she came across a 25-year-old actor who’d been performing in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Kyle MacLachlan was nearly finished with school and was already planned to make a move to New York City to begin auditioning on his way to an acting career. Instead, he was put on the fast track by winning the lead role in Dune.

MacLachlan’s casting wasn’t just the launch of his screen acting career. It was also the beginning of a lengthy collaboration with Lynch which included Lynch’s follow-up to Dune, Blue Velvet, as well as the iconic cult TV series Twin Peaks.

7. Helena Bonham Carter was Dune’s original Princess Irulan.

As the cast of Dune was coming together and preparing to begin production on the film in Mexico City, the producers ran into a major obstacle. Helena Bonham Carter, the original choice to play Princess Irulan, had a scheduling overlap between Dune and A Room with a View, which she was already shooting. Because the schedules conflicted and A Room with a View “wouldn’t let her out” of work on that film, there was what Virginia Madsen later called a “mad scramble” to find a replacement actress.

Madsen, then an relative unknown, went in to audition in an all-white outfit which David Lynch later saw a Polaroid of. Based on her “classic look,” he chose her as Princess Irulan, which she later called her “big break.”

“Really all I had to do was that monologue, and I was really a glorified extra,” Madsen said.

8. David Lynch and Dino De Laurentiis clashed over the edit.

Dune is a massive, densely detailed novel that establishes a vast sense of place and continuity, which made it a particular challenge to adapt. Once Lynch had a usable screenplay to make the film, the massive scope of Dune translated over into production in Mexico City, where 75 sets and thousands of costumes were made to bring Lynch’s vision of Herbert’s universe to the screen. By the end of production, Lynch had put together a work print that was 4-5 hours long, and eventually trimmed that down to a cut of the film that was somewhere near three hours.

De Laurentiis was having none of that. The producer believed the film needed to be closer to two hours in order to be theatrically successful, and set about condensing Lynch’s original cut down to his preferred runtime. Sequences were cut or heavily abbreviated, and De Laurentiis even oversaw reshoots to add certain elements, including the opening in which Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen) speaks directly to the camera to set the stage for the story. The additions were made after test screening audiences complained the film was hard to understand, but they arguably only muddied the waters even more.

Though he was dissatisfied with his lack of final cut on the film, Lynch has resisted any opportunity to go back and recut Dune, so much so that when the film was expanded for a television release, Lynch asked that his name be replaced with “Alan Smithee,” the traditional pseudonym for directors who don’t want to be credited on films they’re unhappy with.

9. David Lynch learned a valuable filmmaking lesson from Dune.

Virginia Madsen, Kyle MacLachlan, and Sting in Dune (1984)
Virginia Madsen, Kyle MacLachlan, and Sting in Dune (1984).
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Dune was David Lynch’s third feature film, and it turned out to be his first and, to date, only exercise in big-budget franchise filmmaking. Ever since Blue Velvet his career has been marked by smaller budget, often downright experimental, feature films so singular that they’ve earned their own adjective: Lynchian. There’s a reason for this, even beyond Lynch’s pursuit of his own particular filmmaking interest. On Dune, he learned a very specific lesson that would help to define his future as a director.

“When you don’t have final cut, total creative freedom, you stand to die the death, die the death. And died I did,” he recalled. “When you have a failure, like they say there’s nowhere to go but up. It’s so freeing. It’s beautiful, in a way.”

10. Dune helped get Blue Velvet made.

David Lynch has come to look back on Dune as a disappointing exercise in compromise, but he also acknowledges that making the film was “both great and horrible, side by side.” Though he clashed with De Laurentiis over the cut of the film, he did still find a kinship with his producers that went beyond the difficulties of making the film.

“I love Dino and I love Rafaella and I loved working with them,” he later said. “We were like a family. I just know the way they are and they know the way I am. We loved each other in spite of it.”

De Laurentiis obviously loved Lynch back, and had faith in what he could do if he was granted more artistic freedom on a smaller film, because the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group financed Lynch’s follow-up to Dune, Blue Velvet. That film, a nightmarish mystery that once again starred Kyle MacLachlan, is still considered among Lynch’s greatest artistic successes.

11. There were big sequel plans for Dune.

At the time Dune was in production, Frank Herbert had already published four novels in his Dune series, with two more – Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse: Dune – set to follow in 1984 (the year Dune was released) and 1985. That meant there was a vast sandbox of intellectual property for De Laurentiis and company to play in if the film was successful, and the producers certainly intended to keep going. After completing work on Dune, Lynch went right into working on the screenplay for a sequel, and MacLachlan was contracted to return for up to four more films if Dune proved a success. Years later, Virginia Madsen recalled that her own contract for Dune was for three movies, as the producers “thought they were going to make Star Wars for grown-ups.”

Of course, Dune ultimately grossed a little more than $30 million worldwide on a budget of at least $40 million, so no sequels were in the cards.

12. Frank Herbert enjoyed David Lynch’s Dune.

Sean Young and Kyle MacLachlan in Dune (1984)
Sean Young and Kyle MacLachlan in Dune (1984).
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Nearly two decades passed between the time Frank Herbert published Dune and the release of David Lynch’s film adaptation. Along the way, Herbert saw the many different attempts to bring his story to the screen, and he spent a good deal of time in consultation with Lynch as the director developed his version of the Dune screenplay. So, when it was completed, how did he feel about the film?

In an interview with Lynch from around the time of Dune’s release, Herbert seemed quite pleased with the film, particularly the visuals.

“I get asked a specific question a lot of times, if the settings, the scenes that I saw in David’s film match my original imagination, the things I projected in my imagination. I must tell you that some of them do, precisely,” Herbert said. “Some of them don’t, and some of them are better. Which is what you would expect of artists such as David and Tony Masters. I’m delighted with that! Why not take it and improve on it visually? As far as I’m concerned the film is a visual feast.”

Additional Source: Lynch on Lynch, Revised Edition (2005), edited by Chris Rodley

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