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When Final Isn’t Final: A Look at Premature Burials in History

by | Jun 27, 2017 | For Families

The white ceiling of a cathedral

Being buried alive is commonly listed as a top phobia. Thankfully, modern medical practices have made the fear mostly a thing of the past.

But throughout history, the lack of modern medical science meant that accidental burials were definitely a thing to be afraid of. Below are four instances of people being buried a bit too soon.

Alice Blunden

Madam Alice Blunden‘s premature burial remains one of the most well-documented. It is believed Alice died in 1674. As the story goes, Alice had a fondness for drinking brandy — sometimes in large quantities. One day she drank a large amount of brandy and poppy tea and fell into a deep sleep. When she was found, the town apothecary concluded that Alice had passed away. With the hot summer months upon the village of Basingstoke, England, the villagers decided she should be buried without delay. A few days later, school boys reported they heard a voice calling out from the grave. When her body was removed from the grave, signs showed that Alice was, in fact, still alive at the time of her burial.

Simon Magus

Simon Magus was a first-century magician that later converted to Christianity. It is believed that Simon himself requested to be buried alive, and promised to miraculously resurrect himself. Unfortunately, Simon was unable to. His followers dug up Simon’s body three days later, but by that time it was too late.

Matthew Wall

Matthew Wall’s near-premature burial ended on a positive note. Back in the 1500s, a small English village was readying for Matthew’s funeral. As the pallbearers carried Matthew to his grave, one of them tripped and dropped the coffin. Matthew was miraculously revived from the drop and went on to live for several more years. The village of Braughing in Hertfordshire, England, continues to celebrate Matthew’s “reawakening” every year. The holiday takes place on October 2nd.

Bishop Nicephorus Glycas

Nicephorus Glycas was a Greek Orthodox bishop who was believed to have passed away in Lesbos in 1896. As per the Greek Orthodox custom, his body was to lie on display for two days so people could pay their respects. On the second day of the wake, the bishop sat up from his coffin and asked what all the mourners were staring at.

Preventing Premature Burials

Because premature burial was a big worry back then, people came up with different ways to make sure it could be avoided.

For instance, during the height of the cholera epidemic, fear of premature burial was at an all-time high. This led to the development of the safety coffin. The most infamous example of safety coffins are the bell-ringing designs. These coffins had a string that led to a bell above the coffin.

If the “deceased” happened to be alive, then they could ring the bell and alert the cemetery watchmen. This meant that someone had to stay in the graveyard throughout the night to listen for the bells, which many believe is where the term “graveyard shift” was coined, though that theory has never been proven.

Other safety coffins were designed with feeding and air tubes, glass screens, and other elaborate safety mechanisms. Thomas Pursell, a Pennsylvania man, had such a great fear of being buried alive that he designed special graves for his whole family. These graves had an escape hatch that could be opened from the inside, and he instructed that each family member was to be buried with boards, tools, and bread just in case they happened to be buried alive.


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