Fear Of Premature Burial

I would like to begin this article with a confession.

I have for many years suffered with Taphephobia. It’s not acute, it’s not debilitating. It doesn’t keep me awake at night, and I’ve long since learnt to live with it, albeit I pray to all the gods there are that I don’t die with it.

Taphephobia you see is a fear of being buried alive, and I here and now admit that the thought of such a fate fills me with dread.

Indeed, hardly a day goes by when I do not give thanks that I was born into an age when the pronouncement of death is, more or less, based around the certainty of scientific investigation, as opposed to the on the spot observations and untrained eyes of family members and friends – and if you’d ever met my family and friends you’d instantly understand the utter terror such a prospect instils in me.


However, I’m in good company historically speaking, since a large number of esteemed figures in days of yore shared my trepidation. Edgar Allen Poe, for example, evidently suffered from the phobia, and he summed it up perfectly in his short story The Premature Burial, written in 1844:-

“It may be asserted, without hesitation, that no event is so terribly well adapted to inspire the supremeness of bodily and of mental distress, as is burial before death.

The unendurable oppression of the lungs — the stifling fumes from the damp earth — the clinging to the death garments — the rigid embrace of the narrow house — the blackness of the absolute Night — the silence like a sea that overwhelms — the unseen but palpable presence of the Conqueror Worm — these things, with the thoughts of the air and grass above, with memory of dear friends who would fly to save us if but informed of our fate, and with consciousness that of this fate they can never be informed — that our hopeless portion is that of the really dead — these considerations, I say, carry into the heart, which still palpitates, a degree of appalling and intolerable horror from which the most daring imagination must recoil.


If you weren’t a fellow sufferer of Taphephobia before you heard that, I’m sure you are now, and I offer my profound apologies for any inconvenience or distress I may have caused.

The author and playwright Wilkie Collins, was similarly afflicted with the fear, and he went so far as to keep a note by his bedside specifying the precautions that were to be taken before it was assumed that he was dead.

Hans Christian Anderson never went anywhere without a similar note in his pocket. Others adopted even more extreme measures to ensure that such a fate did not befall them.

Prior to her death in 1876, social theorist Harriet Martineau left ten pounds to her doctor for him to see that her head was amputated before burial.


Novelist and journalist Edmund Yates, who died in 1894, left instructions that, before he was buried, his jugular was to be severed to ensure that he was, in fact, dead.

Actress Ava Cavendish, whose death occurred a year later, also stipulated severance of her jugular prior to her interment.


Pioneering feminist Frances Power Cobbe, one of the most remarkable women of the Victorian era, who died in April, 1904, left very specific instructions in her will that her physician was to:-

“..perform on my body the operation of completely and thoroughly severing the arteries of the neck and windpipe (nearly severing the head altogether) as to render any revival in the grave absolutely impossible.”

A photograph of Frances Power Cobbe.
Frances Power Cobbe (1822 – 1904)


Frances Cobbe certainly had good reason to fear such a fate since her great-grandmother had apparently come close to experiencing the horror of a premature burial when she was a young girl, only being spared the terrible ordeal, when she suddenly came round during her own funeral service.

She went on to lead a full and fruitful life that included getting married and giving birth to twenty-two children.


There can be no doubt about it, Taphephobia was alive and kicking in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Thankfully, as far as can be ascertained, premature burial is rare today, especially in those parts of the world where bodies are embalmed prior to interment.

I mean, I’m no doctor, but it is  apparent to even my rudimentary grasp of physiology that displacing your blood with a preservative embalming fluid renders the odds of you being still alive when lowered into the grave nigh on impossible.