Premature Burial In The Nineteenth Century

Nineteenth-Century Americans and Europeans suffered a bizarre but exceedingly common fear of being interred alive. The fear arose out of the reputations of physicians who, lacking modern medical knowledge, (and often a medical degree, especially in the first half of the century) , occasionally pronounced comatose or unconscious patients dead prematurely. The deceased would mirculously revive during funeral services, much to the dismay of friends and family. These incidents were always widely publicized in the local papers.

To the victorians, the fear of premature burial became all-consuming, and many bizarre measures were taken to prevent it. Thanks to the Society for the Prevention of People Being Buried Alive and other concerned citizens, death was handled more tenatively than ever before. For example, the deceased were left lying in their caskets for days or weeks on end before being deemed sufficently dead to bury. When the Duke of Wellington died in 1858, this macabre postponement ritual reached an extreme. The Duke was not buried until two months after his death.

A simpler method of allaying premature-burial anxiety was to place crowbars and shovels in the deceased's caskets; if they revived, they could dig their way out. Also, in use was a pipe that went through the ground and into the casket, to be used for emergency communications. Wealthy families even hired servants to wait by the pipes and listen for calls for help. Wealthy families who wanted their dead to stay that way had yet another option: coffins fitted with special nails that, when driven, punctured capsules of poison gas.

The most popular device by far, however, was the Bateson Revival Device, advertised ' a most economical, ingenious, and trustworthy mechanism, superior to any other method, and promoting peace of mind amongst the bereaved in all stations of life. A device of proven efficacy, in countless instances in this country and abroad.'

the device, patented by George Bateson, came to be known as the Bateson's Belfry. It consisted of an iron bell mounted on the lid of the casket just above the deceased's head. The bell was connected to a cord through the coffin that was placed in the dead person's hand, 'such that the least tremor shall directly sound the alarm.' Although there is no record of this device actually saving someone's neck, it did, nevertheless, enjoy brosk sales for many years and made Bateson a rich man.

Ironically, Bateson himself feared premature Internment so powerfully that it is thought he was driven mad by his preoccupation. In 1886, he committed suicide by dousing himself with linseed oil and setting himself on fire.

writing found in the writers guide to everyday life in the 1800's