What’s a Safety Coffin & What Is It Used For?

Updated

If you’ve ever contemplated the terror of finding yourself buried alive, you’re not alone. The fear of being buried alive is called taphephobia, and it’s more common than you might think. In fact, it’s so common that it spurred an invention: safety coffins. 

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Safety coffins and caskets have been around for centuries, and they’re still around to this day. If you’re wondering about safety coffins and whether they’re right for you, keep reading. 

Safety Coffins, Bells on Graves, and the Fear of Being Buried Alive Explained

The fear of being buried alive⁠—or taphephobia⁠—has been around as long as we’ve been burying our dead. And while the phobia is considered an “irrational fear,” anxieties about waking up six feet under weren’t always entirely unfounded. 

Humans haven’t always been able to tell exactly whether or not a person was truly dead. Before advances in modern medicine, being buried alive was a fairly reasonable concern. 

In fact, a social reformer named William Tebb recorded many premature burial cases. By 1905, he’d collected 149 accounts of live burial, as well as 219 accounts of people who were almost⁠—but not quite⁠—buried alive. 

History 

The peak of the population’s fear of being buried alive was during the cholera outbreaks of the 18th and 19th centuries. Artists and authors created works depicting the deceased victims of illness recovering from their stupor and finding themselves buried alive.

One example of this is Edgar Allen Poe’s The Premature Burial.  It’s thought that this peak of fear fuelled the increased demand for safety coffins in the 19th century. 

Safety coffin innovation throughout history

Patents for safety coffins first appeared in the late 1800s. One of the earliest safety coffin patents was filed in 1868. It shows a coffin that features a bell, which you could ring by pulling a rope from inside the coffin, as well as a handy ladder that you could climb up (before they finished burying the casket, that is). 

Over the next few decades, more patents were filed for innovative safety coffins. Some featured pull strings and mechanisms for allowing airflow into the coffin underground. Others, like this one from 1899,  featured windows looking in on the body within the coffin. The presumed-deceased could break through if they turned out not to be deceased. 

The first safety coffin

The first recorded use of a safety coffin was for the burial of Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick in 1792. Before his death, the Duke commissioned the building of a safety casket with a window, as well as an air tube. It also had a lock, as a substitute for the normal practice of nailing a coffin closed.

In his burial garments within his casket, Duke Ferdinand was buried with two keys: one to open the casket from the inside, and one to unlock the tomb door. 

Modern safety coffins

Luckily, live burial is extremely uncommon now,  in the 21st century. But the fear of finding ourselves trapped in a casket underground hasn’t entirely disappeared. 

However, there are some factors that can increase a person’s chances of being buried alive. For example, some religions require the deceased to be buried within 24 to 48 hours. Religions might also prohibit invasive inspections that could help guarantee that a person is well and truly dead. 

That’s why some enterprising inventors have continued filing patents for more modern safety coffins. This safety coffin patent, filed as recently as 2014, allows a person to simply press a button to alert bystanders that they’ve been buried alive. 

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How Safety Coffins Work

As briefly mentioned, safety coffins throughout history have worked in various ways. Here are some of the basic functions of safety coffin designs. 

A breath of fresh air

A key function of most safety coffins⁠—both historically and in modern times⁠—is keeping the person alive if they wake up.

The hazard of waking up underground is that you’ll quickly run out of air. So, all safety coffins and caskets must feature some mechanism that allows fresh air to enter the coffin. 

Just ring the bell

When most people think of a safety coffin, they think of a rope attached to a bell above ground. And that is a part of many historical safety caskets.

If you happened to wake up buried alive, you could tug on a rope, which was attached to a bell hung above-ground. The bell would ring, alerting the groundskeeper to your plight. 

The push of a button

Modern safety coffins have an updated version of the bell. Instead of tugging a rope, you can simply push a button that’s easily within reach. 

The button switches on a bright light that’s within view of security or other personnel. After a period of time (once there’s no chance the person buried below is alive), the family can remove the light and return the grave to a normal appearance. 

A window to the soul

Back in the hey-day of safety coffins, inventors created another device for warding off live interment. They built coffins with a glass panel at the top, through which you could see the corpse (or presumed corpse) inside. 

Gravediggers would wait a number of days to fill the grave back in. Staff at the graveyard or cemetery would periodically peek in at the body to make sure it was still dead. If you happened to wake up inside one of these caskets, you could simply break through the glass and call out for help.

Safety Coffins: Frequently Asked Questions

Whether you have an interest in the history of safety coffins or you’re thinking about investing in one yourself, you might want answers to these frequently asked questions. 

Was anyone ever saved by a safety coffin?

It might be comforting to know that there are actually no documented cases of anyone being saved by a safety coffin. It’s likely that the creators of these innovative caskets have, throughout history, played up the risk of being buried alive in order to sell their wares. 

And although being buried alive was once a somewhat reasonable fear, modern medicine and the practice of performing autopsies (and embalming) have nearly eliminated the possibility. 

How long can people survive if you’re buried in a coffin?

The amount of time you can survive if you’re buried alive in a coffin depends on two factors: how big you are and how big your coffin is. In short, the more space you have around you in the coffin, the more oxygen you have available. And the more oxygen you have available, the longer you can live without asphyxiating. 

The average person, buried alive inside an average-sized coffin, and consuming the average amount of oxygen, could survive nearly five hours before they run out of air. 

Can you be buried in a glass coffin?

If the description of the glass-paneled coffin described above appeals to you, you might be wondering if you can purchase an all-glass coffin for burial. Unfortunately, you can’t be buried in a glass coffin. Glass coffins are used for viewing⁠—primarily in museums and other memorials. For example, you can observe the painstakingly-preserved body of Vladamir Lenin in his glass coffin in Red Square, Moscow. 

But glass isn’t strong enough to support six feet of earth, which is typically what goes on top of a coffin. You might be able to commission a casket with a glass panel or glass top. However, when it’s time to fill the grave in with earth, that glass will have to be covered over with a panel made of stronger material, like wood. 

Buried Alive 

Even though premature burial is extremely rare in our modern era of advanced science and medicine, taphephobia is still alive and well. If you find yourself worrying about being buried alive, there’s no shame in researching some possible solutions. 

When you’re creating your end-of-life plan, you could consider adding a detailed note about taking extra precautions when it comes to checking for life signs. 

While hospitals and morgues have their own protocols for pronouncing a person dead, it can’t hurt to express your concern about being buried alive to a loved one who interprets your end-of-life-plan. 

And if all else fails, you can always commission an old-fashioned (or more modern) safety coffin. 

If you're looking for more on burials, read our guides on the popular types of caskets and stainless steel caskets.


Sources

  1. Ramsland, Katherine. “Taphophobia: Fear of Waking inside your Grave.” 27 September 2014. www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/shadow-boxing/201409/taphophobia-fear-waking-inside-your-grave
  2. Patent Full-Text Database. United States Patent and Trademark Office. patft.uspto.gov/
  3. Cala, Christina. “How Long Could You Survive if Buried Alive?” Popular Science. 31 October 2013.
  4. “Strange History Of Safety Coffins: From Ancient To Modern Times.” Ancient Pages.  20 May 2017. www.ancientpages.com/2016/02/09/strange-history-of-safety-coffins-from-ancient-to-modern-times/
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