Friday, October 20, 2017

Fun Friday Facts #118: Did People Actually Use Safety Coffins?

Taberger's Safety Coffin allowed the interred person to ring a bell, alerting passersby.

Halloween is almost upon us – and that means it’s time, once again, to reflect upon death and dying. You've probably heard that, back in the day, people used to get buried alive all the time. Snopes documents several cases of inadvertent live burial, including the case of one Marjorie Elphinstone, a Scottish lady who, in the early 17th century, possibly scared a pack of grave robbers straight by turning out to still be alive. In 1674, another Scottish Marjorie, a Ms. Halcrow Erskine, woke up to find herself in a shallow grave, with a sexton trying to cut her rings off. Both Marjories returned from the grave to live productive lives; history tells us that Mrs. Elphinstone “outlived her husband by six years,” while Ms. Halcrow Erskine later raised two sons.

Unfortunately, not all those who were buried alive got as lucky as Marjorie Elphinstone and Marjorie Halcrow Erskine. William Tebb’s Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented records, from 19th-century sources, 219 instances in which someone almost got buried alive, 149 instances in which someone did get buried alive, 10 cases in which someone got dissected while still alive (definitely worse if you ask me), and two cases of the embalming process being started on a still-alive person – a statistic that reminds me of a scary story my aunts used to tell when I was a girl, in which an anonymous Confederate soldier gets accidentally embalmed while still alive. Spoiler alert: he’s not still alive by the end of the story.

Burial alive was common in the past for multiple reasons. For one thing, people frequently fell victim to epidemics of plague, cholera, smallpox, diphtheria, and other communicable diseases that packed the double whammy of making a live person appear to be dead, while also making those definitely-alive people in the near vicinity a reason to get that dead-looking person into the ground/crypt ASAP, before the disease could spread. For another thing, as reported in Jan Bondeson’s Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear, even medical professionals disagreed on which were the real signs of death; was a person who had stopped breathing dead? What about someone who no longer had a heart beat? What about someone who had started to rot? No one could say for sure. Modern medicine was in its infancy, after all.

So, historically, being buried alive was a common, and not unfounded, fear; it did, after all, happen occasionally, and such eminent figures as George Washington and Frederick Chopin requested, on their deathbeds, that measures be taken to ensure that they were really dead before they were buried. Eventually, embalming would become popular; perhaps this was, to some extent, because the embalming process ensured that if you weren’t actually dead yet, you would be by the time they put you in the coffin. But Victorian-era inventors also saw a gap in the market, and filled that gap with patents for safety coffins that purported to offer the not-actually-dead with a means of rescue from the beneath the crushing weight of the cold, cold earth. In her compelling volume Coffin Hardware in Nineteenth Century America, Megan E. Springate writes that safety coffins were America’s answer to the waiting mortuary, a European establishment in which corpses would be watched for a period of time prior to burial, to make sure they were really dead. There were two basic kinds of safety devices installed in coffins: pre-burial devices and post-burial devices. Pre-burial devices were predicated on the assumption that the not-quite-dead person would revive prior to burial, perhaps at his or her own funeral, when he or she could activate, for example, a spring-loaded coffin lid that would allow him or her to pop right out of the coffin in front of the mourners, a course of events that would no doubt ensure the immediate creation of a new corpse to fill the recently-vacated casket. Those things aren’t cheap.

Post-burial devices were geared more toward the not-quite-dead person who had the misfortune to awake when already underground. The first such coffin, thought to have been designed by Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick in the 18th century, was a simple affair sporting an air hole, a window, and a lid that could be unlocked with a key. This design had its flaws. Later designs implemented air pipes, ropes with bells that could be rung, and even “smell tubes” that would allow passersby to ascertain whether or not the presumed-dead person had started to rot, although why you would want this information is beyond me. Such a device certainly seems less than helpful to the person in the coffin.

Vester's Burial Case offered a more elaborate bell-ringing mechanism.

While plenty of patents for safety coffins were filed, that doesn’t mean they were popular. Patents are often filed for products that aren’t ultimately produced or distributed. Safety coffins are often presented in pop history accounts as having been all the rage back in the 19th century, but according to Habenstein and Lamers’ The History of American Funeral Directing, it’s unlikely that any of the patented safety coffins were actually produced. Springate tells us that “examples of safety coffins have rarely, if ever, been identified archeologically,” and Bondeson points out that those most afraid of premature burial would be just the types to worry that the safety devices installed in their coffins would backfire – which, of course, makes sense. Perhaps the most common safety precaution taken by those who feared burial alive was the inclusion of a loaded pistol, a vial of poison, or a knife, in the coffin, any of which could allow one to end one's misery in the case of a premature interment. 


Coffin safety devices aren’t a relic of a bygone era; a patent for a coffin alarm system was filed with the U.S. Patent Office in 1983. Of course, we in modern times no longer have to worry about being buried alive. The miracles of modern medicine have saved us from the ravages of disease that spawned so much of the premature burial fears of yesteryear – and our modern, enlightened doctors definitely know how to tell when someone is dead. Just tell that to Tony Yahle and Brian Miller, two men who were both confirmed extremely dead by red-blooded American medical professionals in the 21st century, and who both literally came back to life, and are presumably still walking around out there somewhere, as alive as you or me.

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