One of the great fears people have is being buried alive – and it seems like we’ve always had it. In the 1800s, a lot of wealthy figures had special coffins built in case they woke up underground. Typically they employed a bell that the not dead dead person could trigger from inside their coffin. This would alert the nightwatchman, which upper class cemeteries had at the time to prevent grave robbing.

As medical science progressed, the trend of safety coffins faded away. But even now it’s possible to be accidentally buried alive. There is a rare condition known as Lazarus Syndrome – a seemingly miraculous return to life, usually long after the patient has been declared dead.

Scientists have no idea why it happens, but since 1982 there have been more than 35 documented cases. So as we look through these horrific stories of people who were buried alive, I want you to remember it could one day happen to you.

People Who Were Buried Alive

Many magicians and escape artists have deliberately buried themselves alive – either to demonstrate their ability to survive in a confined space, or to escape in one piece. By far the most famous of them was Harry Houdini, who actually did the stunt at least 3 times. Four times if you include his actual funeral. His first burial was in 1915, and when he announced it, a lot of people assumed the whole thing would be fake- because to be fair, you’d have to be a lunatic to actually do that. But it turned out Houdini was a lunatic, because it was real, and he very nearly died. Underestimating the physical effort it would take to claw his way through six feet of dirt, it took everything for him to reach the surface – and the moment his hand poked through the ground, he fell unconscious.

Luckily his assistant was ready to pull him up. And also that he was buried without a coffin, otherwise he never would have come back up. But still, he did survive, and news of this stunt soon went global. It would be 11 years before Houdini attempted the stunt again, doing it twice in 1926 – the year he died. And like all of his major stunts, entire generations of performers were inspired to give it a go. After all, Houdini was only human. If he could do it, they should also be able to, at least in theory. As a result, many accounts of people who were buried alive turned out to be performers.

Joseph Burrus

Joseph Burrus often compared himself to Houdini, even suggesting he was better. So in the year 1990 he took the stunt one step further, sealing himself inside a glass coffin. On Halloween night, the clear casket was lowered into the ground. Then, one ton of dirt and six tons of cement were poured on top. The latter would turn out to be a fatal mistake. The sheer weight of the concrete crushed the glass casket, virtually flattening the man inside.

On the surface, his team desperately dug to get him out before it was too late. But given the seven tons of dirt and concrete, it was futile. The Amazing Joe Burrus was dead. It’s unclear if he actually would have been able to get out, if not for the accident, but Burrus described himself as a master of illusion. And to be fair to him, he was not the first to die this way.

Dean Gunnarson

Dean Gunnarson was another, also dying on Halloween night in 1983. They both chose Halloween for the same reason – October 31st in the anniversary of Houdini’s death. Gunnarson too took it a step further. On top of being chained up inside a casket, he was lowered into a cold river. But after roughly four minutes, his crew realized something was wrong. Worryingly, there was no sign of his emerging from below. A crowd of ten thousand watched as the coffin was desperately hauled up, and inside they found a dead man. But by the skin of his teeth he was brought back, being resuscitated on the way to the hospital. As a result, he is still alive today – unlike most. But being buried alive is not always about magic and tomfoolery. Believe it or not, some people don’t do it by choice.

The Burial of Scholars

It is said the first emperor of China had scholars and intellectuals buried on mass. He was the first to unify China and rule it as a single leader, but his position was not set in stone. And since Chinese civilization already had a long history, he decided to destroy historical records. How better to unite the various Chinese states than to tear up any record of their existence. Books were burned and entire schools of thought ground into the dirt. Most shockingly, though, it is said he had scholars buried alive. One by one they were investigated, and according to tradition, 460 of them were buried alive.

That’s just the kind of emperor he was. He was obsessed with trying to achieve immortality, and his hobby was burying scholars alive. He’s literally me. It’s a cruel punishment. I’m not sure any crime truly warrants being buried alive. But in ancient Persia it was seen more as an honor than a punishment. Sometimes, the children of wealthy families would be buried as a sacrifice to the gods. Compared to some of the execution methods employed by the Persians in those days, it was relatively mild.

There was also a practice in some cultures of live burial under the foundations of important burials. Say for example a temple was ordered. What you really need to do is seal your own child in a chamber beneath it. According to some cultures, this may lure the gods to guard the temple. Other cultures said the ghost of your child will be the one guarding it. But either way, this is a real thing that happened across the world. Even today, a lot of historic temples were literally built on human remains.

The Victorian Era

As the centuries rolled by, premature burial tended to be reserved for the most taboo of crimes – treason, witchcraft, and the like. Even then, it was rarely used. It just wasn’t part of the public consciousness at all. But like some many other things, that would change in the 18 hundreds.

The late Victorian era was a golden age of all things macabre. Frankenstein, grave robbing and pulp fiction brought it mainstream attention. Gothic writers like Edgar Allen Poe made a point of revisiting it in multiple stories – stories made all the more scary by real life cases of premature burial.

Anna Hockwalt

One of those cases was that of Anna Hockwalt. She was an ordinary Victorian girl, dying young in 1884, as many did in those days.The exact cause of death was unclear, but given her nervous disposition, doctors blamed a heart attack. Her brother was about to get married, perhaps the excitement was too much for her. But some friends and family members were skeptical. They thought she did not look quite dead, noting her face still had a lifelike color. So after the funeral, they expressed doubt to her parents. Why they waited until she was buried, I don’t know, but it’s the kind of thing I’d do to my friend. Mr and Mrs Hockwalt were not amused, though. For some reason, the thought of their daughter being alive filled them with hope. So before long the coffin was dug up.

At best, she would be alive and well, and at worst, the doctors would have been proven correct. But nature had a plot twist in store for them. The girl was indeed dead, but in a very different state than expected. Turned on her side, the casket lining was torn up. Her fingers were bloody and worn to the bone. Clumps of hair torn from her hair. It was clear she had been alive until just a few hours before this inspection. Heartbroken, efforts were made to conceal this information from the local community.

This might sound weird, but think about it. In an era when people were genuinely scared of vampires, you don’t want people to know your kid was buried alive. You don’t want to be the creepy family. But at least you wouldn’t be alone. It’s thought people were buried alive fairly routinely in those days.

The End of Being Buried Alive

As I mentioned before, medical science has gradually reduced the occurrence of live burials. And while it was not a punishment unknown to organized crime well into the 20th century, it was less and less of an issue. A quick google search will reveal dozens of modern occurrences also, but don’t worry – chances are, you’ll be dead before your funeral.

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