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
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
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
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 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.”
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
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.