top of page

The Fear of Premature Burial: A 19th-Century Nightmare

Waking up in darkness, confined within four wooden planks, six feet underground—this is an image worthy of a nightmare, a genuine phobia that peaked in the 19th century. What does the fear of being buried alive reveal about our relationship with death and medicine from the 18th to the 19th century?

In 1883, Émile Zola recounted "The Death of Olivier Bécaille," the title of a short story in the collection "Naïs Micoulin."

Zola, like many others in the 19th century, discussed premature burial, where the person buried is not yet dead: "With my finger, I tried to attract pinches of earth by the knot I had thrust in, and I ate that earth, which doubled my torment.

I bit my arms, not daring to go to the blood, tempted by my flesh, sucking my skin with a desire to sink my teeth into it." Fortunately, in Zola's story, the hero emerges from his grave.

Premature burials, a story from beyond the grave: those with claustrophobia, beware!

Premature burial: myth or reality?

Lazarus in the Gospels, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet in Shakespeare are all literary and cultural figures that haunt our imagination and acquaint us with the idea of apparent death.

The fear of premature burial, which goes hand in hand with apparent death leading to tragic errors in judgment, spans across the ages and has produced numerous variations.

However, it was in the 18th century that the medical community began addressing this issue by seeking to determine the definitive signs that can confirm a person's death without risking a mistake.

Medicine was notably unreliable in the 18th century, as a case of coma, catalepsy, lethargy, or hypothermia could lead a physician to wrongly declare a death.

"It remains to be seen whether it was the doctors who intensified this fear by spreading their method to avoid premature burial, or if this fear already existed in popular culture, and doctors provided a medical response to it," ponders Claudio Milanesi.

Diderot and d'Alembert's "Encyclopedia" article on "Death" reports numerous anecdotes of individuals who appeared dead being prematurely buried or saved at the last moment from this dreadful fate.

Most of these stories are fanciful and belong to almost legendary oral tales.

"These are more creations of the mind than actual experiences," notes Anton Serdeczny. "Most of these stories are told forty or fifty years after the fact and are likely entirely fabulous."

At the same time, doctors sought to identify distinct signs of death, as demonstrated by Bruhier in his "Dissertation on the Uncertainty of the Signs of Death" (1742), to be able to confidently confirm a person's death.

Being buried alive: a 19th-century phobia Concurrently, the widespread panic of premature burial seems to have reached public opinion and peaked in the 19th century.

Petitions raised the alarm on the subject, to the point where the Senate held a session on it in 1866. Specific legislation emerged: in France, Article 77 of the Napoleonic Code in 1804 mandated a minimum 24-hour waiting period between confirming a death and burial to prevent morbid accidents. Nevertheless, actual cases of people being buried alive were relatively rare.

Innovations to Avoid Premature Burial Despite the rarity of premature burials, surprising and inventive coffin prototypes were developed. Some included bells to alert from the inside, while others had food reserves to sustain the person until rescue arrived.

The fantasy of premature burial had tangible and positive consequences on medicine, as explained by Claudio Milanesi: "If resuscitation is now part of our daily life, we owe it to the response of the first doctors, like Bruhier, to an irrational fear."

Explore the intriguing history of the fear of premature burial and its impact on medicine from the 18th to the 19th century.

Discover how this phobia influenced literature, culture, and even led to innovative coffin designs.


Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
bottom of page