Chances are you’ve seen the viral video of a guy who had a surprising final messages for the mourners gathered at his funeral. If you haven’t take a minute to watch it. I’ll wait. It’s not like I’m going anywhere.
The guy is, or rather was, brilliant. Or maybe it’s just me, and most of the people at his funeral. There’s nothing funnier than playing on our worst fears, although modern embalming techniques greatly reduce the odds of being buried alive, and cremation reduces the odds even further.
Premature burial was, however, a great concern at one time, especially in the 19th century. This may be because booming populations forced the moving of a lot of cemeteries and the disinterment of their occupants because if you’ve seen the film Poltergeist you know that building a home over a cemetery is a terrible idea, but that’s another story. The belief in premature burials was so pervasive that in 1828 the city of Frankfurt in Germany required that all mortuaries be under the charge of a medically trained cemetery inspector, and all bodies were watch continuously for three days before burial. Exceptions were only made if there was obvious decomposition.
Some of this fear was probably unnecessary. Although there were cases of people in deep comas reviving and conditions like catalepsy that could cause the appearance of death another source of the belief in premature burial was claw marks on the insides of coffins, as though the interred were trying to get out. As Vampires, Burial, and Death by Paul Barber points out, it’s unlikely that a living person sealed in a casket would wake up—the buildup of carbon dioxide would keep them unconscious—and corpses tend to move around a lot as they decompose. You may have heard that your hair and fingernails keep growing after death. They don’t. The skin around them contracts as the body loses water so it just looks like they’re growing. As corpses break down they may claw the insides of their coffins. Corpses also make noises as they decompose, giving rise to the belief that vampires can be heard chewing their shrouds.
And then there’s Poe’s The Premature Burial, probably the most famous story of someone who’s not ready to go just yet. Premature burial features pretty frequently in Poe’s stories: Ligeia, Berenice, and The Fall Of The House Of Usher all involve early internments, and in The Cask Of Amontillado the not so lucky Fortunato is deliberately buried alive. But The Premature Burial is the one that gives away almost everything with the title, and starts with a warning that there are “certain themes of which the interest is all-absorbing, but which are too entirely horrible for the purposes of legitimate fiction” then proceeds to talk about those themes. Poe draws on a wide range of gothic sources, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the less well-known Vathek, and offers a lengthy account of people who weren’t quite dead yet. In fact the story seems to go on a little too long because, you know, the dead can get pretty chatty.