It sounds like an urban legend or something out of a Monty Python sketch. A man is found unresponsive, declared dead and then discovered to be very much alive once with the undertakers. The fear of this scenario has a long history and one which is still with us today.
Back in the Victorian age, the fear of being buried alive was a hot topic in mainstream media. Part of the reason it was such a widespread concern was because determining death was, at that time, not exactly as straight forward as you might imagine. Since embalming wasn’t a common practice at the time, funerals and burials had a shorter timeline. People who slipped into a coma could easily be mistaken for being dead only to wake up once they were 6 feet under.
Clever businesses and inventors came up with a number of options to help prevent the problem, including burial vaults with escape hatches and coffins that offered access to alerting the world if the occupant woke up after they had been buried. These coffins, dubbed safety coffins, used a bell to alert the public and their use is where we get the phrase “saved by the bell.”
Today, the fear of being buried alive seems almost quaint. These days, it seems like it would be nearly impossible for such a thing to happen and stories of being buried alive are often only found in scary movies and horror novels. But the truth is, it’s not only possible, it’s been known to happen.
- In 2008, paramedics in southwest England were called out to check on a man who hadn’t been seen in several days. The medics entered the house and found the man completely unresponsive. They notified the local undertakers the man had passed away and considered the job done. But when the undertakers arrived and began moving the body, the man began to show signs of life and was ultimately treated in hospital.
- In 2014, a 91-year-old woman in Poland was declared dead by her family doctor after a relative found her unresponsive at home. Her body was collected and taken to the local mortuary in a body bag. Staff was later alarmed to see movement from within the body bag and, upon opening it, the woman was confused but very much alive.
- Also in 2014, a man in Kenya tried to kill himself by swallowing insecticide. Medical personnel thought he had gotten the job done and declared him dead. A full day later, mortuary workers noticed the man was moving and appeared to be breathing. He was alive and wound up recovering.
- At the end of 2016, a Polish man went out for a night on the town and wound up waking up in the morgue. The man had passed out while drinking, went into cardiac arrest and was pronounced dead. He was transferred to a refrigerated unit at the morgue where he woke up several hours later and began banging against the door which alerted a guard. Once freed from his temporary death, he promptly headed right back to the pub.
Stories of being buried alive sound like Urban Legends today, but let’s face it – the Victorians knew what was up. Their inventions and safety precautions initially may seem silly and even quaint today but clearly mistaking the living for the dead is still something of an issue. On the bright side, there haven’t been any widely publicized stories about people being buried alive accidentally which hopefully means that these mistakes aren’t literally going to the grave.
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