Taphephobia – [taf-uh-foh-bee-uh] – The fear of being buried alive. The Premature Burial, The Cask of Amontillado, The Fall of The House of Usher, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. 4 stories with completely different narratives, yet they all share one similarity, Earth. The fear of it. Of being surrounded by it, with no earthly (beyond your death) escape. Possibly among one of the most frightening ways to die it’s no wonder horror writers use the subject of premature burial as often as they do. But what brought on this fear? Yellow fever, plagues, and death itself all bring these fears forward. Is the fear of being buried alive a rational one? In Poe’s time what was happening to spur forward this fear? And what could this fear symbolize?
Historical Piece and Literary Analysis
“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. We know of nothing so agonizing upon Earth — we can dream of nothing half so hideous in the realms of the nethermost Hell.” – Edgar Allan Poe, ”The Premature Burial”
Death is final, or at least we hope it is. Disregard all religious aspects of that sentence, truly think about it. Imagine, waking up, your lungs seizing on the lack of damp air, you reach out to find the rest of your prison, wood stopping you from comfort, Silence, no noises beyond your own breathing, and perhaps the etching of the worms across your casket. You have been buried alive. It’s not a fun place to put yourself is it? A terrifying concept, nothing but wood and 6 feet of dirt stopping you from life. 3697 lbs of dirt. Bet you wished you didn’t skip arm day? This fear was rampant during the 19th century, and few others wrote as much fiction on it as Poe. In his early career with Loss of Breath, to the early burials of the Usher family, to his study of Premature Burial, Poe’s obsession with this macabre subject must come from somewhere?
To understand Poe in this context we must note two things, why was everyone so afraid of being buried alive, and what could it mean in a literary stance? Poe was born in 1809 and lived until 1849. Meaning he lived during The Industrial Revolution but died before The Civil War. Which puts in a magical time where slaves were worked to death, hands were destroyed by cotton gins, and The Cholera Epidemic.
Sounds like a fun place right? Give it thirty years and brother would be killing brother. “But, Max?” you ask “What does this have to do with being buried alive?” well, Cholera, Plague, and Smallpox, had people just collapsing from exhaustion in the streets(this is the important bit, hold onto it). The problem with Cholera is(besides it’s at the time as high as 80% mortality rates in urban areas), the more dead people that are in the streets, the easier it is for Cholera to spread, and the problem with Smallpox was that it was everywhere. So this melting pot of perfect storm of people falling over dead from Smallpox and their corpses making everything more decayed and therefore spreading Cholera. What was our solution? We needed to bury them, away from the undiseased, so for the rich, they got their coffins and their tombs, everyone else got The Cholera Pits. The Cholera Pits, I don’t even want to imagine about the people they didn’t know were alive that got buried in those. You would be wrapped in linens, lined up in a 8 foot deep hole next to others who had fallen to disease, liberally sprinkled with quicklime, covered in coal tar or pitch, burned, and then buried. That’s right it was a time so bad that we resorted to mass graves.
To prove a point here a few cases
“In 1837, Cardinal Somaglia was taken ill, passed out, and was thought to have died. Preparations were begun immediately to embalm this very important church official. When the surgeon/embalmer cut into the chest to instill embalming materials, he could see the cardinal’s heart still beating. Worse, at this point, the cardinal awoke from his stupor and wisely pushed the knife away from his chest. His effort was to no avail, though — the chest incision killed him.” (Snopes) due to a lack of modern medicine we had no way to prove whether or not someone was dead, beyond that of the arterial pulse and these incidents have not stopped with modern medicine either “In 1984, a post-mortem examination was being conducted in a mortuary in New York. When the pathologist made the first cut the “corpse” leaped up and grabbed him by the throat. The pathologist died of shock.” (Snopes) sounds like something out of a horror story doesn’t it?
“William Tebb(1830-1917) compiled 219 instances of narrow escape from premature burial, 149 cases of actual premature burial, 10 cases in which bodies were accidentally dissected before death, and 2 cases in which embalming was started on the not-yet-dead.” (Snopes) and those 149 cases were just the ones he caught! Think of those were never found. paupers graves, mass graves, just being unlucky, people died before their time under the earth. So, naturally people feared this grisly demise, and the safety coffin was invented. You heard me right, SAFETY COFFIN (oxymoron that that is), imagine a coffin, you know what that is right? Big wooden box. Then give it 6 feet of copper tubing for an air hole, and a string and a bell running through it. Pull on the string and ring the bell if you are trapped, and boom, grave keeper to the rescue.
Now that you know what was happening at the time. What was Poe trying to say, or what could being buried alive symbolize? Luckily for us, Poe gave his opinion on this matter and the subject in his work The Premature Burial “To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality. That it has frequently, very frequently, so fallen will scarcely be denied by those who think.” (Poe). Poe like a great deal of others were afraid of the subject, and what is the best muse for a horror writer? Your fears. “Fearful indeed the suspicion — but more fearful the doom! 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.” It was not the fear of being buried alive that frightened Poe, it was the fear of his inevitable death given form. In that wooden box you only have so much time, like the man on death row watching the clock, your death seems more inevitable in that cage.
While Poe is writing from a character’s perspective that is not his own in The Premature Burial you can tell that the fear is there and that the man did his research. But Poe was a writer, and writers can be fickle things. Always writing one thing yet meaning another? People have dedicated their lives to the attempts to find what writers really meant with that passage. Or what this subject could of meant, I am going to attempt to summon the spirits of literary critics and analysts past. What does being buried alive symbolize?
Three Views Jump out at me.
1.The Defining Moment of Death and its Transition
I touched briefly on this earlier but the questions must be asked. When are you dead? Is it when the doctor announces you dead? When your family is going through coffin brochures? When you are being lowered into the dirt, or put into the crematory? In being buried alive it is not based on any of these three, it happens while you are in the coffin (and hopefully not the crematory) and in fictional states it takes hours and sometimes days. In The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket when it’s title character is trapped in the hold of the ship (entombment with death’s presence of eventuality staring down at him, i’m counting it as a premature burial) he loses track of time, things distort, the food he has with him rots, and he has no idea how long he is in there. Perhaps Poe was talking about the transition of death, It’s more visible in the spectrum of hours as opposed to years. Man is born, Man ages, Man withers away, Man dies. That is the lucky(by lucky i mean no disease or murder, but a peaceful age related death) natural order, the inevitable withering away into death. In the span of a couple hours that process is almost followed to the dot. Man “dies”, Man is buried, Man must breathe, Man withers, Man dies. That withering that we are in a constant state of is show much more clearly, akin to a time lapse in the representation of the premature burial.
2.The Inability to Act (“I can’t do anything tonight, I’m buried under all this homework”)
Imagine you are skiing down a black diamond slope. For some reason or another you come across every skier’s nightmare, an avalanche. Few skiers last more than 25 minutes due to hypothermia, brain damage sets in after 10 minutes. All and all you are not in a good situation. You cannot move, you struggle to breathe, and depending on what you are wearing you may not even be able to scream without flooding your mouth with snow. You will be unconscious within a matter of minutes, and you are completely dependent on whether or not your partners escaped or if someone responds to your beacon in time. It’s easy to draw the connections to any form of premature burial. In a coffin you have no room to move, and if you scream you will just be using precious air. Better hope your signal is good enough to get through six feet of dirt.
So you’re dead. Good job Buddy, you failed at life. But, wait, someone else failed at deciding whether or not if you were dead! A second chance! If you can break through a wooden box, with barely enough room to throw a punch, and a couple thousand pounds of dirt backing that wood. Looks like you failed again. In many societies your life is judged on its successes and its failures. What is more of a failure in life then death? What spits in the face of a social order more than a corpse who refused to stay dead?
Creative Writing Piece.
(With use of Poe’s The Philosophy of Composition in attempt to facade his writing style.
It all turned out well in the end, getting there was the problem. To come to terms, meet with, and fight one’s own Mortality is no minor task, and one worth bragging about. They are fickle things, always out of sight. Until the day comes when they decide to leave the quiet solace of their sepulchers. They stare you in the eyes. Their own filled with the anger that you have suppressed them for so long. Once they come out, they never leave, always hovering above you, influencing your actions. Speaking in your ear in the dead of night when their friends Fear and Regret are hiding under your bed and in your closet, whispering of past actions and things that would let Mortality finally take his grasp of you.
When I was 10 I met Mortality, it came in the shape of a great towering bull mastiff name Caesar, or Seize-r. Caesar was my Aunt’s guard dog, and he was good at his job. The Mailman refused to come by unless Caesar was caged. Caesar did not know me, but he knew Fear. Fear and Pain came to Caesar in the form of two boys my age who had thrown rocks at him and teased him. Fear came again to Caesar when he saw a boy like those who introduced him to Pain. 120 pounds of dog collided with 80 pounds of boy. The fight would of been a short one if not for the my Mother who was with me at the time. Teeth connected with the bone of my skull as the dog mauled me. Lachesis shook her head at Atropos, there was more thread to be spun before my life was to be cut. I escaped, but from that point on I knew who Mortality was, and his friend Fear, who now comes in the shape of all dogs.
As Clotho spins the wheel, Lachesis draws out string, and it is upon Atropos to cut it. Such is the Moirai. Atropos the Inevitable, Mortality given form by the Greeks through her shears, her cut will happen and Mortality will grasp you. But Mortality does not know when it is due. It hounds you across your life. Atropos’ shears scratching along the string but not closing in to make the cut that means your end. Mortality hounds some more than others, Mortality knows that it is due eventually, and but its patience will wear thin. It will reach out and try to touch those whose time not yet up.
I grappled with mortality two years after the first story. 2 laps, 25 jumping jacks, staying on the court until 20 shots were sunk in total. That was how it was every day for PE. It was quick, and designed to get the jitters out of students who couldn’t sit still in class. Whenever the teacher had us not line up for laps we knew something fun was going to happen. It had been a while since the last time after some kids got hurt playing dodge ball. The teachers forgot that the pain is the incentive to dodge and that sport was quickly banned. Balance games, sounds fun. We stood on one leg for as long as we could, balanced basketballs on our noses, but tradition is tradition and we had to run two laps, but this time we were to do it backwards. The teachers failed to notice that blacktop and unbalanced kids do not mix well together
I was flying, my feet had left the ground. I was flying, defying reality until it brought up gravity, then I suddenly wasn’t. I had tripped. On my own damned feet. It’s funny when you’re in danger, your body goes into overdrive and because everything is overclocked you remember things slower. Events that took seconds seem to take minutes when you recall them. I remember tripping, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky that day, just the blinding sun. It was beautiful, a perfect blue surrounding a white sphere that threatened to blind you with it’s glory. Pain, shot me back into reality, the back of my head impacting with harsh blacktop. Once. Pain reminding my young mind that I was not flying, I was falling. Pain again, this time sparking on the back of my head and carrying it’s embers down the entirety of my body. Twice. I was picked up, asking aloud to those who brought me back what was wrong, with a tongue that did not work because my brain refused to let it move properly in its damaged state. My body was experiencing a full system reboot. They carried me back and put me onto a couch. Mortality ever present, it hovered above my ear whispering down “Sleep, sleep and the pain will go away” so I did. An eldritch need, a compulsion beyond reason that must be answered, as blackness enveloped the sides of my eyes I drifted away into sleep.
My body waged war with Mortality for 5 months. Refusing Mortality’s final helping hand, drawing a line in the sand. I slept for 20-23 hours every day, ate ramen without the flavor packet every day because I could keep nothing else down, and woke up briefly to pet my dog. Yet I live because Mortality cannot always win. True, it will have it’s due. But, I survived. I grappled with the claws of Mortality, Atropos’ shears did not come down and cut the string, Clothos spins more for Lachesis to pull out. My life goes on, and hopefully it will go on. I’m told I use this story too often, but aren’t all the stories of brave heroes surviving near death scenarios? Where would we be without The Odyssey, Little Red Riding Hood, or James Bond?
I don’t remember much from before I was twelve. The story of Caesar is all second hand and put together from other accounts. Too many concussions, but I remember that day with perfect clarity, the angry sun, the perfect blue. Mortality’s gift, to remember it by.
Bondeson, Jan. Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear. New York: Norton, 2001. Google Books. Google. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.
Del Río Parra, Elena. “‘He Has No Pulse’: Typologies of the Fear of Being Buried Alive in Pre-Industrial Spain.” South Atlantic Review, vol. 76, no. 3, 2011, pp. 129–150. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43739127.
Lawes, Carolyn J. “Buried Alive? Fear of Failure in Antebellum America.” The Journal of American Culture 37.3 (2014): 299-313. Web.
Kennedy, J. Gerald. “Poe and Magazine Writing on Premature Burial.” Studies in the American Renaissance, 1977, pp. 165–178. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30227431.
@snopes. “Buried Alive.” Snopes. Snopes, 2011. Web. 22 Nov. 2016.