The fear of being buried alive was so widespread in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries that an entire system of hospitals for the dead was established where people could be kept in for observation until they started to go off, in case they woke up.
It started with a book in 1740 called Mortae Incertae Signa, (Uncertain Signs of Death), which led to changes in the law - in many German states it was decreed that burial should be delayed by between 24 and 48 hours after death. Then, in 1788, an Austrian doctor called Johann Frank recommended that corpses should be kept above ground for two or three days to await the onset of putrefaction, supposedly the only sure sign of death. He suggested that every town should have a communal house for the dead, so corpses could be supervised until they could be safely declared dead. Accordingly, the first Vitae Dubiae Asylum, or 'Hospital for Doubtful Life', was opened in Weimar in 1792. Each corpse was kept in a warm environment until putrefaction set in.
The Munich Leichenhaus, or ‘mortuary-house’, had a section for common corpses, and a luxury section which cost five times as much. For a fee people could stroll through the mortuary, to see the flowers (to mask the smell) and the bodies. The strings from the fingers and toes of the corpses were connected to a large harmonium with air-pressured bellows, so you could hear if someone woke up. At night, the swelling of the putrefying corpses frequently set off the mechanism.
As late as the 1880s, Munich had six ‘waiting mortuaries’. They eventually fell into disuse and were torn down or converted into ordinary mortuaries. One doctor calculated that in the 23 years from 1822-45 over 46,500 people had been 'supervised', without a single ‘resurrection’.
‘Saved by the bell’ is a term from the world of boxing in the 1930s, where a beleaguered fighter being counted out gets a second chance if the bell for the end of the round interrupts the count. Pub lore notwithstanding, it has nothing to do with the idea that a dead person might set up a bell in their coffin in order to let people know that they’d been buried alive.
In the Victorian period, people were indeed worried about being buried alive; it was a common subject in the works of gothic writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, who wrote The Premature Burial in 1844. In the first century AD, Simon Magus had his disciples bury him in a tomb to demonstrate that he would be able to miraculously emerge on the third day, but the miracle didn’t transpire and he’s presumably still there. Other examples have been known; in 1896, one study of cemeteries claimed that the number of premature burials might be as high as 2%. Today it seems that the likelihood of being buried alive is very, very slim, but that hasn't stopped an Italian company from fitting coffins with a two-way speaker system.
Hans Christian Anderson was so afraid of being buried alive that he left a handwritten note saying ‘I only appear to be dead’ on his bedside table, while the famous Victorian clown Joseph Grimaldi was so frightened of being buried alive that he specified his head must be cut off first, which his family duly arranged. A Belgian royal doctor, Count Karnice-Karnicki, was so worried that he did indeed invent a coffin with bells and flags to alert passers-by that someone had been buried alive, but this is definitely not the origin of the phrase 'saved by the bell'.
Harry Houdini once tried a trick in which he was to be buried alive, manacled, under six feet of earth. His mouth filled with earth, he nearly died, and although he eventually burrowed his way out but he never tried the trick again.
To promote the 2010 film Buried starring Ryan Reynolds, one cinema ran a competition in which four ‘lucky’ winners were chosen to be placed in the ground in a coffin which was equipped with a screen on which they could watch the movie. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they then had to meet Ryan Reynolds.
There are a number of accounts of Romans waking up while on the funeral pyre, more often than not too late to be saved. Thomas å Kempis was supposedly denied sainthood after his body was exhumed and splinters were found under his fingernails. The argument was that, if he was so holy, he wouldn’t have been desperate to avoid meeting his maker despite his premature burial.
Odran was a sixth-century monk on Iona and patron saint of Waterford, having been declared dead, he was buried, but was dug up again the following day and found to be alive. He was then re-buried for heresy when he claimed that after his first burial he had seen Heaven and Hell.
The soldier Francois de Ceville was born by caesarean from a dead mother; he was famous as having been buried three times and dug up alive on each occasion. He died aged 105 of a cold that he caught after serenading a woman all night.
In 1672, Madam Blunden, an inhabitant of ‘basing-stoak’ who was described in her local paper as being ‘a fat gross woman who liked to drink brandy’ collapsed after swigging a bottle of poppy-water. She was buried, but local boys playing close to the burial site heard her screams and alerted their teacher, but it was days before a committee could decide to check; when they did she showed the tell-tale signs of premature burial, covered in blood and scratches.
A Dijon woman called Nicole Tentillet was mistakenly thrown in a plague pit in 1558; she couldn’t escape due to the weight of bodies, but was luckily found by gravediggers who came with another pile of corpses a few days later: she made a full recovery.
The stifling fumes of the damp earth – the clinging of the death garments…we can dream of nothing half so hideous in the realms of the nethermost Hell.
Modern safety coffin designs have included heart monitors, breathing apparatus and even video games.
Not only is it legal to bury a body on private property, you don't even need planning permission.
Wisely they leave graves open for the dead
'Cause some too early are brought to bed.
It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens.
In 2011, a Russian died after being buried overnight in a makeshift coffin 'for good luck'.
In medieval Italy, unrepentant murderers were buried alive, head down, feet in the air.