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Weird History: The Safety Coffin

Ever wake up unground and realize you've been buried alive? No? Well, back in the day, it was a legitimate concern. In fact, it was such a problem that "safety" coffins were invented with measures in mind to stop the public from inadvertently burying the living.

The safety coffin, also known as the security coffin, originated sometime in the late 1700s. According to Smithsonian Magazine, accounts of humans being accidentally buried alive date all the way back to 14th century Britannia. From there, documented accounts continue to be recorded all across Europe. By the late Georgian era, taphophobia (the fear of being buried alive) was in full swing.

Patents for safety coffins began popping up all over the world by the early 1800s. Bells, whistles, breathing tubes, and ladders all make appearances in most of these contraptions. Today, the most widely recognized version is probably Dr. Johann Gottfried Taberger's 1829 design. It featured a rope tied to the arms and legs of a "corpse" on one end and a bell fastened above the ground on the other end. The idea was that if the buried person's limbs were to move in any way, the bell would ring. The Taberger design is definitely what I picture when I think about safety coffins (because don't we all think about safety coffins?)

Several American safety coffins were patented in the mid 1800s, including Christian H. Eisenbrandt's 1843 design that involved a spring-loaded lid. Franz Vester's "improved burial-case" in 1868, featured a ladder by which the interred could escape and a bell they could ring to notify those above if they were too weak to escape on their own.

The Australian Museum provides this passage from the Vester patent:

"The nature of this invention consists of placing on the lid of the coffin, and directly

over the face of the body laid therein, a square tube, which extends from the coffin up

through and over the surface of the grave, said tube containing a ladder and a cord, one end of said cord being placed in the hand of the person laid in the coffin, and the other being attached to a bell on the top of the square tube, so that, should a person be interred ere life is extinct, he can, on recovery to consciousness, ascend from the grave and the coffin by the ladder; or, if not able to ascend by said ladder, ring the bell, thereby giving an alarm, and thus save himself from premature burial and death; and, if on inspection, life is extinct, the tube is withdrawn, the sliding door closed, and the tube used for a similar purpose."

People were so concerned about being buried alive that Edgar Allan Poe managed to tap into that fear when he published is 1844 short story "Premature Burial" in The Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper.

Today, scientific advancements have made it less likely for someone to be accidently buried alive. That said, the fear of it still exists. The idea of being confined underground really gets to people. Just look at the contemporary horror classic The Descent (spelunking not burying, but still) from 2005 or the 2010 indie film Buried, which takes place entirely inside a coffin.

Taphophobia really pokes at human nature and our relationship to mortality. It speaks to us—saying terrible, terrible things.

No wonder we started constructing safety coffins.

[Image Credit: "The Premature Burial" painting by Antoine Joseph Wiertz via Wikimedia Commons, Johann Taberger safety coffin illustration via Wikimedia Commons, and Franz Vester burial coffin illustration via Wikimedia Commons]

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