There are few places worse to wake up than in a tomb. And during the 19th century there was a concerted fear of being pronounced dead by some means and then returning to life hours later to find that no one was expecting to come to your rescue. And so an entire industry rose up to breathe life into the concept of “precipitate interment.” But what stories started this fear of premature burial? And what solutions did they come up with to solve it?
There are many theories on what may have preceded a deathly fear of burial before their time. But one of the most compelling arguments for it suggest a change in the definition of the word “dead” as new methods of reviving the unconscious came about. They discovered that at times a person could enter a comatose state whereby they appeared to have no motor function, no ability to move or respond to external stimuli, and the overall appearance of being deceased but could then wake up at a later date and go on to live for quite some time. This was likely one of the key elements which, along with a growing horror story press, put the idea of premature burial in the minds of the public. Of course not all of it was just public perception. Sometimes people truly did get buried before their time. And this made it impossible to gauge just how common the occurrences were.
Fears became so widespread that a number of devices were designed to alert the living if someone were ever buried prematurely. One of the designs was to place a bell with a long string leading into the tomb whereby a person could signal if they were buried before their time. The ringing of the bell would alert others in the area (assuming of course someone walked past the grave) and they could be exhumed (or rescued) quickly. There was even an article published in the New York Times dated August 14, 1886 that something like a company or a cooperative was to be set up complete with a working staff, a large mausoleum, and electric buzzers to inform the living if anyone had been placed their by mistake or medical error.
And medical doctors also came up with their own means of detecting the dead, such as by placing a mirror over the mouths of those suspected to be dead or dying and looking to see if fog formed on it indicating a shallow breath undetectable by any other means. But do live burials still happen today? It is very remote, but in some places it does still occur. Most preparation methods such as embalming, however, serve as a grim final barrier to ensure it doesn’t.