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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Animals and humans may be buried alive intentionally (as a form of torture, murder or execution), voluntarily (as a stunt, with the intention to escape or as a form of suicide), accidentally (e.g., under rubble due to a disaster or collapse of a building or cave), or unintentionally (in the mistaken belief that the living person is dead). Live burial is said to be one of the most widespread of human fears.[1]


Physics and biology

Antoine Wiertz's painting of a man who was buried alive.

If interment (burial) is not reversed within a short period, it leads to death, usually through one or more of the following: asphyxiation, dehydration, starvation, or (in cold climates) exposure. Although human survival may be briefly extended in some environments as body metabolism slows, in the absence of air, loss of consciousness will take place within 2 to 4 minutes and death by asphyxia within 5 to 15 minutes. Permanent brain damage through oxygen starvation is likely after a few minutes, even if the person is rescued before death. If fresh air is accessible in some way, survival is more likely to be on the order of days (in the absence of serious injury).

A person trapped with air to breathe can thus last a considerable time, and burial has been used as a very cruel method of execution, lasting sufficiently long for the victim to comprehend and imagine every stage of what is happening (being trapped in total darkness with very limited or no movement) and to experience great psychological and physical torment including panic and extreme claustrophobia. The medical term for the irrational fear of being buried alive is "taphephobia".[2]


A burial vault built circa 1890 with internal escape hatches to allow the victim of accidental premature burial to escape.

At least one report of accidental burial goes back to the 13th century. Revivals have been triggered by dropped coffins, grave robbers, embalming, and attempted dissections.[3] Fearing premature burial, George Washington, on his deathbed, made his servants promise not to bury him until two days after his death.[4] Patients in the 1890s have been documented as accidentally being bagged, trapped in a steel box, or sent to the morgue.[5]

Count Karnice-Karnicki of Belgium patented a rescue device in 1897, which mechanically detected chest movement to trigger a flag, lamp, bell, and fresh air. Along similar lines, in the United Kingdom various systems were developed to save those buried alive, including breakable glass panels in the coffin lid and pulley systems which would raise flags on the surface. Without air supply, as in the Italian model, this naturally would be useless without vigilant guards above ground. As such, undertakers were hired to stay in the graveyard at night to watch out for such signals. In 1890 a family designed and built a burial vault at the Wildwood Cemetery in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, with an internal hatch to allow the victim of accidental premature burial to escape. The vault had an air supply and was lined in felt to prevent a panic stricken victim from injuring themselves before escape. Bodies were to be removed from the casket before interment.[6] In 1995, an Italian coffin manufacturer introduced a model with a beeper and intercom system. These are all examples of safety coffins.

As a means of execution

Vitalis of Milan being buried alive.

In ancient Rome a Vestal Virgin convicted of violating her vows of celibacy was "buried alive" by being sealed in a cave with a small amount of bread and water, ostensibly so that the goddess Vesta could save her should she have been truly innocent.[7]

According to Christian tradition, a number of saints were martyred this way, including Saint Castulus[8] and Saint Vitalis of Milan.[9]

In medieval Italy, unrepentant murderers were buried alive. This practice is referred to in passing in canto XIX of Dante's Inferno.

In the 17th and early 18th centuries in feudal Russia, the same mode of execution was known as "the pit" and used against women who were condemned for killing their husbands.[10] The last known case of this occurred in 1740.

During World War II, Japanese soldiers were documented to have buried Chinese civilians alive, notably during the Nanjing Massacre.

Voluntary burial

On rare occasions some people actually voluntarily arranged to be buried alive, reportedly as a demonstration of their controversial ability to survive such an event. In one story taking place around 1840, Sadhu Haridas, an Indian fakir, is said to have been buried in the presence of a British military officer and under the supervision of the local maharajah, by being placed in a sealed bag in a wooden box in a vault. The vault was then interred, earth was flattened over the site, and crops were sown over the place for a very long time. The whole location was guarded day and night to prevent fraud, and the site was dug up twice in a ten-month period to verify the burial, before the fakir was finally dug out and slowly revived in the presence of another officer. The fakir said that his only fear during his "wonderful sleep" was to be eaten by underground worms. According to current medical science, it is not possible for a human to survive for a period of ten months without food, water, and air.[11] However, according to other sources the entire burial was 40 days long, which makes the feat more plausible.[12]

Since many who have tried this feat died as a result, being voluntarily buried alive is not legal in India.

During his career, Hungarian-American magician and escapologist Harry Houdini performed two variations on a "Buried Alive" stunt/escape. The first was near Santa Ana, California in 1917, and it almost cost Houdini his life. Houdini was buried, without a casket, in a pit of earth six feet deep. He became exhausted and panicky trying to dig his way to the surface and called for help. When his hand finally broke the surface, he fell unconscious and had to be pulled from the grave by his assistants. Houdini wrote in his diary that the escape was "very dangerous" and that "the weight of the earth is killing."

Houdini's second variation on Buried Alive was an endurance test designed to expose a mystical Egyptian performer who claimed to use supernatural powers to remain in a sealed casket for an hour. Houdini bettered that claim on August 5, 1926, by remaining in a sealed casket submerged in the swimming pool of New York's Hotel Shelton for one hour and a half. Houdini claimed he did not use any trickery or supernatural powers to accomplish this feat, just controlled breathing.

Criss Angel performed this same stunt in memory of Harry Houdini, only he was buried under six feet of snow in a coffin.

Being Buried Alive (2005, 2007): A performance staged several times by art group monochrom. People in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver and Toronto had the opportunity to be buried alive in a real coffin for fifteen minutes. As a framework program monochrom members held lectures about the history of the science of determining death and the medical cultural history of "buried alive".

Myths and legends

St. Oran was a druid living on the Island of Iona in Scotland's Inner Hebrides. He became a follower of St. Columba, who brought Christianity to Iona (and mainland Europe) from Ireland in 563 AD. When St. Columba had repeated problems building the original Iona Abbey, citing interferences from the Devil, St. Oran offered himself as a human sacrifice and was buried alive. He was later dug up and found to be still alive, but he uttered such words describing what of the afterlife he had seen and how it involved no heaven or hell, that he was ordered to be covered up again. The building of the Abbey went ahead, untroubled, and St. Oran's chapel marks the spot where the saint was buried.

In the fourteenth through nineteenth centuries, a popular tale about premature burial in European folklore was the "Lady with the Ring". In the story, a woman who was prematurely buried awakens to frighten a grave robber who is attempting to cut a ring off her finger.[13]

The TV show MythBusters tested the myth to see if someone could survive being buried alive for two hours before being rescued. Host Jamie Hyneman attempted the feat, but because his steel coffin began to bend under the weight of the earth used to cover it, the experiment was aborted.[14]

See also


  1. ^ Jan Bondeson, Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear. W.W. Norton & Co., 2002.
  2. ^
  3. ^ E.g., Barbara Mikkelson, Just Dying To Get Out; Accessed 2009.11.02.
  4. ^
  5. ^ "Just Dying to Get Out",, June 9, 1999.
  6. ^ "Odd Family Vault Prevents Premature Burial". Popular Mechanics Magazine. July 1921.,M1=. Retrieved January 30, 2009.  
  7. ^ Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Life of Numa Pompilius, 10
  8. ^ Castulus (Kastulus) - Ökumenisches Heiligenlexikon
  9. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia: St. Vitalis
  10. ^ [1]
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ Jan Bondeson (2001). Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear (New York: W. W. Norton, ISBN 039304906X) pp. 35–50.
  14. ^ MythBusters.Season 1: Episode 5,"Hammer Bridge Drop, Buried Alive, Cola", Original airdate: October 24, 2003.

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