Taphophobia is the fear of being buried alive. The limited advancement of medicine in the 18th and 19th century made this fear all too real for the public at large. In light of this, the safety coffin or security coffin was invented and fitted with a mechanism allowing an occupant to signal that they have been buried alive.
Diseases Mimicked Death and Brought about the Need for a Safety Coffin
Many diseases of the time often led people to be buried alive. Both cholera and bacterial infections caused severe diarrhea and dehydration often leading to a near catatonic state. Other diseases would cause the heart to slow down where it is almost undetectable.
African trypanosomiasis, also known as African sleeping sickness is an infectious disease that causes uncontrollable abnormal sleeping patterns. This disease led to a great number of premature burials and enhanced the widespread fear of being buried alive.
In 1790, Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick had the first safety coffin built. The coffin included a window to allow light in and a tube that provided fresh air. Once the lid was locked, 2 keys were sewn into a pocket in his burial shroud. In the event he was to awaken inside his coffin, he would be able to reach the 2 keys and unlock the coffin. The window would also allow the cemetery caretakers to periodically look down onto the coffin to see if his body was decomposing.
The dying request of George Washington reportedly stated, “Have me decently buried, but do not let my body be put into a vault in less than two days after I am dead.”
In the 19th Century, Germans designed over 30 different safety coffins. The most popular one was from Dr. Johann Gottfried Taberger. This coffin included a rope system that attached to the corpse’s hands, feet, and head to an above-ground bell. However, this system was not as effective as he hoped because he failed to take into account the bloating of the body. When the body begins to decompose it becomes bloated which caused the ropes to move and ring the bell above ground.
Other designs included a raiseable flag, a firecracker, or a pyrotechnic rocket which could be used to alert the cemetery caretakers. A few designs even included a shovel, a ladder, and a supply of food and water. Some experts believe the idiom ‘saved by the bell’ originated from the use of safety coffins.
There were 149 cases of actual premature burial, including 10 people who were accidentally dissected before death and two who were embalmed while still alive. In 1905, the book Premature Burial: How It May Be Prevented was co-authored by William Tebb, the founder of the London Association for Premature Burial. This book was meant to help stop help prevent people from being buried alive.
Safety coffins are still available for purchase today. As recently as 1995, an Italian named Fabrizio Caselli invented a safety coffin model that includes an emergency alarm, two-way microphone/speaker, a torch, oxygen tank, heartbeat sensor, and heart stimulator.