By Jane Palomera Moore
(Detail from Edgar Allan Poe’s “Premature Burial” by Harry Clarke, 1919. Public Domain.)
The bereaved family of Emma, countess of Edgecumbe, said their final farewells to her around the 18th century, Cornwall, England. They shut the wooden lid on her peaceful figure in its pristine shroud. They carried the coffin down the long path from her manor to the family vault. The earl of Edgecumbe and Emma’s family watched as the stone door shut away the coffin for good — their heads bowed, their tears flowed, and their feet stood rooted as though waiting for one last sign from Emma — before they walked away.
That’s where the sexton comes in. Intent on stealing her lavish worldly possessions off her, he waited for darkness to fall before approaching the quiet vault and opening the heavy doors. He wrenched open the coffin lid and reached for a large, elegant ring on Emma’s finger.
And Emma’s eyes opened.
She sat up, by which time we can surmise that the thief fled in sheer terror. Slowly, painstakingly, the woman in her burial shroud staggered back along the very path she had been carried in death, back to her home and the unspeakable shock of her family who met her at the door.
This startling story of premature burial was well-known throughout British society at the turn of the 19th century. The London Society for the Prevention of Premature Burial, fierce advocates for slower funerals and watchful waiting over the dead, recounted Emma’s tale in all its lurid detail to prove that premature burial was more than popular media whipping the public up into a panic — and they were right.
The fear of premature burial, or taphephobia, is one of the most widespread phobias in the world. It’s a primally terrifying idea that none of us have experienced, but all of us seem to know intimately. Gothic literature, notably Edgar Allen Poe’s aptly named “The Premature Burial” and “Fall of the House of Usher,” offer fraught descriptions of rosy-cheeked corpses, heads of dazed survivors erupting from the disturbed soil, and hysteria that besets the poor souls who awake from deep sleep to find nothing but pitch black, with no hope of escape from the unforgiving pine coffin.
But the inspiration for these horror stories had to come from somewhere.
Historical records from ancient Rome to the 20th century prove that the ambiguities of sickness and death could elude medical practitioners. Mistakes were made.
In 1896, a supervisor at South Dakota’s Fort Randall Cemetery, T. M. Montgomery, estimated that somewhere around 2% of the bodies in the cemetery were interred too soon, when the bodies were merely in a state of “suspended animation” — in other words, alive. It’s said that around the same time, when the Les Innocents Cemetery in Paris, France, relocated to the suburbs from the city, a number of skeletons exhumed from the cemetery were found face-down; their serene, appointed positions had been disrupted.
But numbers aren’t enough. In 1886, The New York Times received a report out of Ontario, Canada: a young woman by the surname of Collins had died very suddenly. Soon after she had been buried without incident, her corpse was exhumed to be moved to another burial site. The report offers to analysis to what happened next, nor any conclusion. The description of what was seen is all it can muster: “Her shroud was torn into shreds, her knees were drawn up to her chin, one of her arms was twisted under her head, and her features bore evidence of dreadful torture.”
Another story published in the Times one year prior, in 1885, features a Mr. Jenkins of Asheville, North Carolina, seemed to die after enduring a fever for several weeks. He could not be woken, his skin went cold, and no one could discern a pulse or breathing. The evidence seemed inarguable; he was pronounced dead.
One observation could have been the only sign that something was amiss: a witness at the funeral pointed out that Jenkins seemed “limber” when being placed in his coffin, with none of the usual dead man’s stiffness.
Ten quiet days later, Jenkins’ remains were exhumed to be reburied on a family plot. The wood coffin was opened. Witnesses said that not only was the corpse was lying facedown, but fistfuls of hair had been pulled from his head. The sides of the coffin had been splintered, lined with scratchmarks from nails. Jenkins had been buried only to break out of his “trance” and reckon with his own certain death.
So haunted was the western world’s psyche by the specter of a live burial that taphephobia was not only ubiquitous, but a respectable fear throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Beloved writer Hans Christian Andersen, a taphephobe, placed a note on his bedside table every night that read “I’m not dead,” so salient was his fear that his sleeping body would be mistaken for dead and treated as such. George Washington, on his deathbed in 1799, was taphephobic enough to precaution his attendants: “Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the Vault in less than three days after I am dead.” A reasonable request: in light of earlier medicine’s shortcomings, putrefaction, which usually sets in around three days after death, ultimately remained the gold standard in determining death.
Medicine did try its best. Medical practitioners and anatomists, plagued with confusion over when to define the moment of death, resorted to extreme tactics. Pain became a tool in their hands. Whipping the body before dissecting it to ensure no chance of revival was recommended as early as 1746. Also prescribed: shrieking into the ears of the perhaps-deceased, pulling and contorting their limbs into painful positions, and injecting air or smoke into the body’s intestines. The soles of feet were cut and pricked with sharp objects. Throats were slit. Torturing the body, decided healers, was desperate measure befitting of desperate times in the world of medicine.
Entrepreneurs jumped to profit from taphephobia. Dozens of premature burial notification systems sprang from the rich soil of fear, offering all sorts of contraptions to save a life from six feet under. One of the most elegant of these technical remedies was a simple bell system: a string tied to the corpse’s hand linked to a bell installed above-ground, which the frantic soul could ring if they awoke in their coffin. Although no lives were reportedly saved by the bell, this ingenious design does add some weight to the idiom “saved by the bell.”
When people heard stories like the one of young Julia Legare, it’s no surprise that the public would scramble for the next invention, rule, or test to save them from an unthinkable end. Julia Legare and her family holidayed on Edisto Island, South Carolina, in 1852. The island, humid and swampy, was an ideal breeding ground for diphtheria — but her family, like others, did not understand that. Nor did they understand the onset of Julia’s illness, and how as time passed and she got worse, she eventually could slip into a sleep that no one could wake her from. Her family could do nothing for her but watch, wait, and then mourn her. Her body was interred in the family mausoleum.
Years later, as the Civil War raged on, Julia’s brother was killed in combat. Intent on giving him a respectable burial, the family reopened the mausoleum to inter their son.
When they opened the heavy door, they saw the scratchmarks — they were everywhere, lining the mausoleum’s marble walls and floor. The coffin they had lovingly placed in the mausoleum had been unceremoniously opened. And just behind the door laid the crumpled skeleton of a young girl.
Amid tens of dozens of only halfway reliable theories on how to determine death and a racket of patents for ventilated gravesites and “safety coffins” with internally installed handwheels, the French Academie des sciences set a prize for anyone who could ascertain a certain death. Eugene Bouchut, inventor of the stethoscope, won the prize in 1846 for a deceptively simple theory: if no sign of a heartbeat was detected for two minutes, certain death had occurred.
Steadily, the progress of science turned the metaphysical terrors of premature burial obsolete. In 1895, the electrocardiogram gave its first accurate reading. Soon after, the discovery of electroencephalography unveiled the vast intricacies of the brain. Now, we live in an age when the drug tPA can revive a stroke patient who has been heart dead for up to three hours, and where a brain dead patient can deliver a healthy baby. The rules of the game have changed: death, thanks to medicine, can be undone.
Room for such a horrific error as burying the living has been wittled away – almost. While taphephobia’s vice grip on the public conscious has lost its pride of place, what remains still commands a subtle but sweeping power over the psyche of our population. Taphephobia isn’t going away. Nor are the names of the prematurely buried, and the stories they’ve taken with them.
Back on Edisto Island, Julia Legare’s twice-bereaved family, still reeling from the shock of their daughter’s premature burial, became intent on keeping their son from the same fate. They made sure to check in on the body only a short time after they interred him.
They were met with another kind of shock: Julia and her brother’s stone mausoleum door had somehow cracked straight down the middle.
The Legare family replaced it.
On their next return, things took a turn for the stranger. The door had been broken into pieces, and strewn before the mausoleum. Another replacement door, and another — each stone door summarily destroyed by an unknown force, and the yawning mouth of the mausoleum open.
If you visit the Legare mausoleum on Edisto Island today, you will find it has not been resealed. Julia’s parents, feeling their daughter wanted to send them a message, honored her wish. They made sure to keep the mausoleum door open for her, freeing her from her tomb for good.
Jane Palomera Moore
Jane’s lifelong love for the lesser-told stories has taken her overseas with the Danish Red Cross, the Japanese education system, and to translation work. She works with New York Public radio and is the editor of Ryan Sprague’s upcoming book, Somewhere in the Skies: A Human Approach to an Alien Phenomenon.