Monday, October 31, 2011

Buried Alive!

The pathological fear of being buried alive is called taphophobia1 [from the Greek taphos, or grave]. Being buried alive seems like a fate worse than death, the stuff of nightmares and horror movies and Edgar Allan Poe short stories. What could be pathological about such a fear? When taken to extremes, it can become a morbid, all-consuming obsession. In 1881, psychiatrist Enrico Morselli wrote about "two hitherto undescribed forms of Insanity" (English translation, 2001):
As the result of some observations I have made in recent years, I propose to add two new and previously undescribed varieties to the various forms of insanity with fixed ideas, whose underlying phenomenology is essentially phobic. The two new terms I would like to put forward, following the nomenclature currently accepted by leading clinicians, are dysmorphophobia and taphephobia.

The first condition consists of the sudden appearance and fixation in the consciousness of the idea of one’s own deformity; the individual fears that he has become deformed (dysmorphos) or might become deformed, and experiences at this thought a feeling of an inexpressible ansieta (anxiety). The second condition, taphephobia, consists of the sick person’s being plagued, at his approach to the time of his own death, by a fear of the possibility of being buried alive (taphe, grave), this fear becoming the source of a terribly distressing anguish. It is not necessary for me to give a very detailed description of these two new forms of rudimentary paranoia I have discovered and named, since in so doing I would only be repeating descriptions that have long been available among the many and varied forms of paranoia in books and the most important journals of psychiatry; instead, I shall limit myself to making some general comments on the conditions.

The ideas of being ugly and of being buried whilst in a state of apparent death are not, in themselves, morbid; in fact, they occur to many people in perfect mental health, awakening however only the emotions normally felt when these two possibilities are contemplated. But, when one of these ideas occupies someone’s attention repeatedly on the same day, and aggressively and persistently returns to monopolize his attention, refusing to remit by any conscious effort; and when in particular the emotion accompanying it becomes one of fear, distress, anxiety and anguish, compelling the individual to modify his behaviour and to act in a pre-determined and fixed way, then the psychological phenomena have gone beyond the bounds of normal, and
may validly be considered to have entered the realm of psychopathology.
Dysmorphophobia has come to be known as body dysmorphic disorder, a preoccupation with perceived defects in one's appearance (Buhlmann & Winter, 2011).

Although taphophobia seems irrational now with modern definitions of brain death,2 it was a more prevalent (and realistic) fear in the 19th century. "Safety coffins" with air tubes, bells, flags, and burning lamps were a booming business. However, these contraptions failed to assuage an inventor with severe taphophobia (Dossey, 2007):

One of the most popular safety devices in Victorian England was the Bateson Revival Device, invented by George Bateson, who made a fortune in sales. The gadget came to be known as Bateson’s Belfry. It consisted of an iron bell mounted on the coffin lid just above the deceased’s head, with a cord connected to the hand “such that the least tremor shall directly sound the alarm.” Ironically, his invention did nothing to relieve his own all-consuming fear of premature burial. In 1886, driven mad by his dread, he committed suicide by dousing himself with linseed oil and setting himself on fire.

Would you rather burn to death or suffocate in a coffin? Excruciating physical pain vs. sheer panic,3 bloodied limbs, and mental anguish? Not a pleasant choice.


1 Also spelled taphephobia.

2 Which are still controversial, nonetheless (Teitelbaum & Shemi, 2011).

3 Well, not if you're The Bride in Kill Bill Vol. 2.


Buhlmann U, Winter A. (2011). Perceived ugliness: an update on treatment-relevant aspects of body dysmorphic disorder. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 13:283-8.

Dossey L. (2007). The undead: botched burials, safety coffins, and the fear of the grave. Explore (NY). 3:347-54.

Morselli, E., & Jerome, L. (2001). Dysmorphophobia and taphephobia: two hitherto undescribed forms of Insanity with fixed ideas. History of Psychiatry, 12 (45), 103-107 DOI: 10.1177/0957154X0101204505 [Introduction]

Morselli, E. (2001). Dysmorphophobia and taphephobia: two hitherto undescribed forms of Insanity with fixed ideas. History of Psychiatry, 12 (45), 107-114 DOI: 10.1177/0957154X0101204506 [Translation of original Italian]

Teitelbaum J, Shemi SD. (2011). Neurologic determination of death. Neurol Clin. 29:787-99.

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At October 31, 2011 5:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alfred Nobel suffered from taphophobia and constructed an alarm system not unlike the one you depicted.

At November 02, 2011 12:21 PM, Anonymous London Counselling said...

Considering the very real possibility (borne out through archaeology and historical accounts)of beng buried alive before the modern standards of brain death and ubiqitous use of elbalming prior to burial) it is not surprising that a person should have such a fear. However, does anyone know if this inventor also suffered from claustrophobia also?

At November 10, 2020 10:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Claustrophobia and being buried alive is the worst form of torture, a fate worse than death and worse than any horror movie. There are no words to adequately describe this horror. It's the worst form of suffering. It's unbearable. Suffocation on one hand and being enclosed and unable to move on the other hand. There's nothing worse than claustrophobia.I live in endless fear of this horrible fate.It's imperative to prevent this horrifying fate.


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