Taphophobia: Saved By the Bell?

Whether it’s a full-blown phobia or something that just scares the crap out of you, we each have that one thing that makes us weak in the knees. Maybe it’s ghosts, clowns, or even spiders (really?). For me, my biggest fear is that of being buried alive. No, of course this is not rational. But in my defense, most people’s deepest, darkest fears are irrational. That’s part of why they scare us so much. My fear falls somewhere between a phobia and something that keeps me up on those dark, lonely nights. My fear even has a fancy name: Taphophobia.

Before the days of modern medicine, this wasn’t just an irrational fear; it was a real occurrence. The hysteria was especially rampant during the 18th and 19th centuries, when cholera was at its worst and people were dying everywhere. The number of cases of people being buried alive is shocking. Can you imagine what it would be like if you were buried alive? Complete darkness, with no room to move. You had limited air and no food. You would starve to death, but quite possibly go crazy first.

The fear was only made worse by Edgar Allan Poe and his horrific works of literature. He thrived off

of the hysteria, writing short stories such as his 1894 horror tale, “The Premature Burial.” His work perpetuated the public’s panic. Being buried alive was a common theme in Poe’s stories, as it’s highlighted in his books “Berenice, “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and the short tale, “The Black Cat.”

Because of the public paranoia, measures were taken to ensure that those buried alive would survive. This was a luxury of the rich, such as the casket Duke Ferdinand Brunswick-Luneberg commissioned in 1792 and it was the first in a long line of Safety Coffins. The casket came complete with a window, a tube through which he could breathe, a lock on the door, and the keys in his pocket.

Variations of these coffins were made over the years. Most notably was Dr. Johann Gottfried Tarberger’s 1829 Safety Coffin, which came with a pulley system which allowed for an above ground bell to ring, alerting the cemetery night watchman. Should the bell ring, the watchman was to insert a tube into the coffin and fill it with air using bellows, until which time the coffin could be exhumed.

Interesting so far, right? Well, “folk etymology” (development of words and phrases) claimed there were three well-known phrases still used in today’s vernacular that originated due to the use of Safety Coffins. The first is associated with a popular 90’s television show. The phrase, “Saved by the Bell,” along with the phrases, “Dead Ringer,” and “Graveyard Shift,” are all said to have originated in the 1800’s.

Unfortunately, as neat and gruesome as it would be, the phrase, “Saved by the Bell,” actually originated as a boxing term. It’s when a fighter who is nearly knocked-out perseveres until the bell rings, avoiding a loss in that round. Still, the etymology, or source, of the sayings, “Dead Ringer,” and “Graveyard Shift,” are still thought of as originating from the usage of Safety Coffins in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Now, what does any of this have to do with my fear of being buried alive? When I was little and found out about Safety Coffins and their bells, I couldn’t imagine being buried in any other coffin. What if I came back to life? Or if I wasn’t dead? How would anybody know? Thankfully, there have been tremendous medical advances since the 1800’s so most of us no longer have to worry about having Taphophobia.

Why shouldn’t we be worried about being buried alive? Just ask the mortician. To put it bluntly, our corpses are pumped full of three gallons of embalming fluid which seeps into the body cavity and arteries in order to preserve the body temporarily for wakes, funerals, and other religious traditions.

The ingredient in embalming fluid which we’re most familiar with is formaldehyde, which makes up 50 percent of the fluid’s contents. Little do most people know that we are exposed to formaldehyde every day. Scientists must use it to preserve tissues, but it has other uses, such as in pesticides and fertilizer. It can also be released into the air from common sources such as cigarettes and exhaust pipes. Trace amounts can also be found in our drinking water! So, exactly how dangerous is our exposure to formaldehyde?

Don’t worry; chances are, you’re okay. The real harm comes from drinking the stuff. One ounce of formalin, a concoction that contains 37 percent formaldehyde, can cause a number of ailments, such as convulsions, respiratory failure, stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea, if it doesn’t put you in a coma or kill you first. Needless to say, if you’re body is pumped full of three gallons of embalming fluid, you’re not going to be waking up. Now, let’s just hope you’re dead when you arrive at the morgue.


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