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Animals and humans may be buried alive intentionally (as a form of torture, murder or execution), voluntarily (as a stunt, with the intention to escape or as a form of suicide), accidentally (e.g., under rubble due to a disaster or collapse of a building or cave), or unintentionally (in the mistaken belief that the living person is dead). Live burial is said to be one of the most widespread of human fears.

Physics and biology

Antoine Wiertz's painting of a man who was buried alive.
If interment (burial) is not reversed within a short period, it leads to death, usually through one or more of the following: asphyxiation, dehydration, starvation, or (in cold climates) exposure. Although human survival may be briefly extended in some environment as body metabolism slows, in the absence of air, loss of consciousness will take place within 2 to 4 minutes and death by asphyxia within 5 to 15 minutes. Permanent brain damage through oxygen starvation is likely after a few minutes, even if the person is rescued before death. If fresh air is accessible in some way, survival is more likely to be on the order of days (in the absence of serious injury).

A person trapped with air to breathe can thus last a considerable time, and burial has been used as a very cruel method of execution, lasting sufficiently long for the victim to comprehend and imagine every stage of what is happening (being trapped in total darkness with very limited or no movement) and to experience great psychological and physical torment including panic and extreme claustrophobia. The medical term for the irrational fear of being buried alive is "taphephobia".


At least one report of accidental burial goes back to the 13th century. Revivals have been triggered by dropped coffins, grave robbers, embalming, and attempted dissections. Fearing premature burial, George Washington, on his deathbed, made his servants promise not to bury him until two days after his death. Patients in the 1990s have been documented as accidentally being bagged, trapped in a steel box, or sent to the morgue.

Count Karnice-Karnicki of Belgiummarker patented a rescue device in 1897, which mechanically detected chest movement to trigger a flag, lamp, bell, and fresh air. Along similar lines, in the United Kingdommarker various systems were developed to save those buried alive, including breakable glass panels in the coffin lid and pulley systems which would raise flags on the surface. Without air supply, as in the Italian model, this naturally would be useless without vigilant guards above ground. As such, undertakers were hired to stay in the graveyard at night to watch out for such signals. In 1890 a family designed and built a burial vault at the Wildwood Cemetery in Williamsport, Pennsylvaniamarker, with an internal hatch to allow the victim of accidental premature burial to escape. The vault had an air supply and was lined in felt to prevent a panic stricken victim from injuring themselves before escape. Bodies were to be removed from the casket before interment. In 1995, an Italian coffin manufacturer introduced a model with a beeper and intercom system. These are all examples of safety coffins.

As a means of execution

In ancient Rome a Vestal Virgin convicted of violating her vows of celibacy was "buried alive" by being sealed in a cave with a small amount of bread and water, ostensibly so that the goddess Vesta could save her should she have been truly innocent.

According to Christian tradition, a number of saints were martyred this way, including Saint Castulus and Saint Vitalis of Milan.

In medieval Italy, unrepentant murderers were buried alive. This practice is referred to in passing in canto XIX of Dante's Inferno.

In the 17th and early 18th centuries in feudal Russiamarker, the same mode of execution was known as "the pit" and used against women who were condemned for killing their husbands. The last known case of this occurred in 1740.

During World War II, Japanese soldiers were documented to have buried Chinese civilians alive, notably during the Nanjing Massacre.

Voluntary burial

On rare occasions some people actually voluntarily arranged to be buried alive, reportedly as a demonstration of their controversial ability to survive such an event. In one story taking place around 1840, Sadhu Haridas, an Indian fakir, is said to have been buried in the presence of a British military officer and under the supervision of the local maharajah, by being placed in a sealed bag in a wooden box in a vault. The vault was then interred, earth was flattened over the site, and crops were sown over the place for a very long time. The whole location was guarded day and night to prevent fraud, and the site was dug up twice in a ten-month period to verify the burial, before the fakir was finally dug out and slowly revived in the presence of another officer. The fakir said that his only fear during his "wonderful sleep" was to be eaten by underground worms. According to current medical science, it is not possible for a human to survive for a period of ten months without food, water, and air.

Since many who have tried this feat died as a result, being voluntarily buried alive is not legal in India.

During his career, Hungarian-American magician and escapologist Harry Houdini performed two variations on a "Buried Alive" stunt/escape. The first was near Santa Ana, California in 1917, and it almost cost Houdini his life. Houdini was buried, without a casket, in a pit of earth six feet deep. He became exhausted and panicky trying to dig his way to the surface and called for help. When his hand finally broke the surface, he fell unconscious and had to be pulled from the grave by his assistants. Houdini wrote in his diary that the escape was "very dangerous" and that "the weight of the earth is killing."

Houdini's second variation on Buried Alive was an endurance test designed to expose a mystical Egyptian performer who claimed to use supernatural powers to remain in a sealed casket for an hour. Houdini bettered that claim on August 5, 1926, by remaining in a sealed casket submerged in the swimming pool of New York's Hotel Shelton for one hour and a half. Houdini claimed he did not use any trickery or supernatural powers to accomplish this feat, just controlled breathing.

Criss Angel performed this same stunt in memory of Harry Houdini, only he was buried under six feet of snow in a coffin.

Being Buried Alive (2005, 2007): A performance staged several times by art group monochrom. People in Los Angelesmarker, San Franciscomarker, Vancouvermarker and Torontomarker had the opportunity to be buried alive in a real coffin for fifteen minutes. As a framework program monochrom members held lectures about the history of the science of determining death and the medical cultural history of "buried alive".

Myths and legends

St. Oran was a druid living on the Island of Ionamarker in Scotlandmarker's Inner Hebridesmarker. He became a follower of St. Columba, who brought Christianity to Iona (and mainland Europe) from Irelandmarker in 563 AD. When St. Columba had repeated problems building the original Iona Abbey, citing interferences from the Devil, St. Oran offered himself as a human sacrifice and was buried alive. He was later dug up and found to be still alive, but he uttered such words describing what of the afterlife he had seen and how it involved no heaven or hell, that he was ordered to be covered up again. The building of the Abbey went ahead, untroubled, and St. Oran's chapel marks the spot where the saint was buried.

In the fourteenth through nineteenth centuries, a popular tale about premature burial in European folklore was the "Lady with the Ring". In the story, a woman who was prematurely buried awakens to frighten a grave robber who is attempting to cut a ring off her finger.

The TV show MythBusters tested the myth to see if someone could survive being buried alive for two hours before being rescued. Host Jamie Hyneman attempted the feat; however, due to the steel coffin bending under the stress of the dirt used to cover it, the experiment was prematurely aborted because of the danger of testing the myth.

In literature

  • In the final act of the Verdi opera Aida (1871), the hero Radames is buried alive as a punishment by the Egyptiansmarker, where unknowingly he joins the heroine Aida (an Ethiopian princess enslaved by the Egyptians), his lover.
  • Edgar Allan Poe wrote a short story by this name, and it is a recurring theme in much of his work, such as in the short story "The Fall of the House of Usher".
  • In Sophocles' Antigone, the character of Antigone is sentenced to execution by being placed in a cave and having the doors covered with stones.
  • In Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables, the hero, Jean Valjean, is almost buried alive when a plan for smuggling him out of the convent in which he is hiding from the law goes awry. He faints before being rescued by the cunning of the friend who had masterminded the plan.

In films

  • In Ghutan, a horror film by Shyam Ramsey, the heroine is intentionally buried alive by her lover. She gets out by breaking the coffin and comes home. What she doesn't know is that she is dead. A priest advises her to return to her corpse and die "completely" - a suggestion she refuses. Ultimately, she becomes a zombie on a murder spree.
  • Tamara (2005), starring Jenna Dewan, is about a woman who is buried by her classmates, who believe her to be dead after she has banged her head during a struggle. She returns to school looking attractive and arrogant and starts taking revenge on those involved in her murder. In her dress, she carried a page from a spell book, which supposedly saved her.
  • In the Quentin Tarantino film Kill Bill: Volume 2, Beatrix Kiddo is buried alive and escapes by punching through the coffin. The character Budd informs fellow, former Deadly Viper Assassination Squad member Elle Driver that he gave said heroine a "Texas Funeral."
  • In the Lost episode "Exposé", survivors Paolo and Nikki are paralyzed by a deadly kind of arachnid. Their fellow survivors mistake them for dead and, just as the pit in which they lie is being filled with sand, Nikki's eyes open (when the viewer first realises that they are actually still alive) and they are then buried alive.
  • 1972 TV film "The Longest Night" tells the true story of a girl kidnapped and buried alive.
  • In the Dutch film Spoorloos (1989) (and its US remake The Vanishing (1993)) the villain buries alive the male protagonist after he agrees to let him find out what happened to his long lost girlfriend (the villain had kidnapped and buried her alive years before).
  • In The Haunting of Sorority Row, a horror/thriller film, a group of sorority sisters bury one of their pledges who they thought was dead, but returns picking them off one by one.
  • Buried Alive (1990) and its sequel Buried Alive 2, with Tim Matheson, are both about crimes going wrong because the crime victim was buried alive but was able to escape, and then turned the tables.
  • An episode of the US television series Criminal Minds features a serial killer who seeks to murder his victims using the method of death that the victim most fears. The final victim was buried alive by the perpetrator.
  • In the Heroes Season 2 Finale, the immortal Adam Monroe is buried alive by his nemesis Hiro Nakamura. Additionally, after an assassin believed him to be dead, Sylar was buried (technically, due to the character being able to heal extremely quickly and being therefore immortal) alive, later digging his own way out of the grave.
  • In the animated show, "Total Drama Island", the character Gwen was forced to conquear her fear and be buried alive as a challenge for her team, in the episode, Phobia Factor.
  • In the TV movie The Scorned, Jenna Morasca's character Angie is buried alive.
  • In the movie Casino , Nicky and his brother are buried after being beaten half to death with baseball bats.
  • In Torchwood, the immortal Jack Harkness is buried alive in 27 A.D. by rogue Time Agent John Hart and dug out in 1901 by the Torchwood Institute. He spends the next 107 years in cryonic storage until he is back in his 'real' time.
  • In the TV series C.S.I., the forensic agent Nick Stokes is kidnapped and buried alive in a plastic coffin in a two part episode Grave Danger as an act of revenge on the Las Vegas crime lab.
  • In the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy was buried alive by the master because this was one of her nightmares and she rose from the grave as a vampire as that was one of Giles' nightmares. This happened in the season 1 episode "Nightmares".

In music

On their 1991 album The Ten Commandments, Florida death metal band Malevolent Creation had a song called Premature Burial written in first person perspective about someone buried alive.

In Slipknot's original release of their self-titled album Slipknot, the songs "Frail Limb Nursery", and "Purity" were based from a story lead vocalist Corey Taylor had read regarding a girl named Purity Knight who was kidnapped and buried alive. After the release of the album, the band was accused of copyright infringement regarding the lyrics of the song "Purity". Although Taylor insisted that he thought the story was true, the author claimed it was fictional. The author objected to its use in the song and Slipknot were forced to remove "Purity" and its short sample-filled prelude "Frail Limb Nursery" from the album. As a result, the band released slightly remastered standard and digipak versions of the album in December 1999, replacing both tracks with "Me Inside". The band however still play the song during live performances and it is included in the band's second DVD Disasterpieces as well as the live album 9.0 Live. Also, Eminem, in his song My Name Is from The Slim Shady LP references premature burial by saying "I'll have to be carried inside the cemetery and buried alive". Finally, American rock band Alter Bridge included a song entitled "Buried Alive" on their second album, Blackbird.

The The Dropkick Murphys released a song entitled "Buried Alive" on the album Blackout.

At the end of Busta Rhymes's song Legend of the Fall Offs on his album The Big Bang Busta bury's a person - who symbolizes a career that has peaked - alive

See also


  1. Jan Bondeson, Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear. W.W. Norton & Co., 2002.
  3. E.g., Barbara Mikkelson, Just Dying To Get Out; Accessed 2009.11.02.
  5. "Just Dying to Get Out",, June 9, 1999.
  6. Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Life of Numa Pompilius, 10
  7. Castulus (Kastulus) - Ökumenisches Heiligenlexikon
  8. Catholic Encyclopedia: St. Vitalis
  9. [1]
  11. Jan Bondeson (2001). Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear (New York: W. W. Norton, ISBN 039304906X) pp. 35–50.
  12. MythBusters.Season 1: Episode 5,"Hammer Bridge Drop, Buried Alive, Cola", Original airdate: October 24, 2003.
  13. Aida - Synopsis

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