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Saved by the Bell

Taphophobia is an irrational fear of the grave, or fear of being put in the grave while still alive. The word taphophobia comes from the Greek "taphos” (grave) and "phobos" (fear).

Sarah Michelle Gellar has publicly admitted to suffering from taphophobia. Additional taphophobia sufferers who feared being buried alive include Hans Christian Anderson, Frederic Chopin, George Washington, and Alfred Nobel,

The fear of being buried alive may be an ancient obsession—Pliny the Elder recorded cases among the Romans in his Natural History, written in 77 CE.

The fear of being buried alive was rampant in the late 1700s and 1800’s. This was due in part to the cholera epidemic and rumors of live burials that had occurred. After the death, the body was watched over by family and friends to ensure that the spirit did not leave the body. Watching over the dead was also a way to avoid a premature burial. Those who watched over the body were instructed to cover their mouth if they yawned so the spirit could not enter their body.

The Cask of Amontillado”, published in 1846, tells a story of a nobleman who exacts his revenge on a friend by immurement – he entombs his friend alive inside of a wall. The story was a great success.

Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Premature Burial” was published in 1850. It didn’t help matters as it is about a person suffering from taphophobia being buried alive. “To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality.” Edgar Allan Poe

But the golden age for this phobia was the Victorian era. By 1891, Italian psychiatrist Enrico Morselli said fears of premature burial were so widespread it was time to create an official medical term.

Rampant taphophobia also led to the creation of so-called “safety coffins”, designed to prevent premature burial. Most involved some mechanism for communicating with the living, such as ropes and other tools that were used to ring bells above ground. This even led to the famous phrase “Saved by the Bell’. Other sources credit a German priest, P.G. Pessler, who specifically came up with the idea to attach a cord to the church bells from each coffin. This is where the term “dead ringer” comes from.

Others claim that Anne Hill Carter Lee’s story led to safety coffins. Anne Hill Carter Lee was a famous, prominent woman from Virginia, United States. After a period of failing, fragile health, Anne Hill Carter Lee was pronounced dead – after the doctor repeatedly failed to detect a heartbeat or any sign of life. Her death came as a crushing loss, and soon after, Anne was laid to rest in the rich family’s vault. But soon after the funeral, a sexton visited the vault and, to his utter shock, heard muffled screams. Further inspection revealed that Anne Hill Carter Lee was far, far from dead – she was exhumed in perfect health. The event shook the wealthy Lee family and remained a controversial topic for many generations to come. But nonetheless, Anne Lee survived and thrived, and thirteen months after her untimely funeral, she gave birth to a son – a son that would grow up into one of the U.S.A.’s history’s well-known figures, Robert E. Lee.

Some safety coffins also included supplies of air, food, and water. Over the following decades, safety coffins never truly ceased to exist, with patents popping up from time to time. Furthermore, the concept survived well into modern times, with patents from the 1990’s that included intercom systems, alarms, heart monitors, and breathing assistance. Other more modern techniques provided to help the “presumed dead person” alert outsiders included the addition of air pipes, oxygen tanks and glass doors inside coffins.

In conclusion, modern medicine is quite advanced compared to in the past when people were often declared prematurely deceased and thus mistakenly buried alive. Taphophobia is still a common fear today and is classified as an anxiety disorder.


1)Slaughter, April and Taylor, Troy (2018). Disconnected From Death: The Evolution of Funerary Customs and The Unmasking of Death in America. services,LLC. “saved by the bell- the surprising history of safety coffins”, UPDATED 18 JULY, 2019, by ALEKSA VUČKOVIĆ of Being Buried Alive Phobia – Taphophobia

https://listverse.com10 Well Known People and their Phobias by Nick Reagan Famous People Who Were Afraid They'd Be Buried Alive, by Bess Lovejoy, May 20, 2015 | Updated: Sep 24, 2019 Do you have Taphophobia?, Feb 19, 2020

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