Victorian Era fear of being buried alive and Post-Mortem photography

Victorian Era Fear of Being Buried Alive and Post-Mortem Photography

  • One of the most unsettling traditions of The Victorian era was the practice of post-mortem photography – the practice of photographing the recently deceased.
  • Before modern medicine could safely identify the difference between paralysis or coma and being dead, people were swept by mass-hysteria of being buried alive.

In 18th and 19th century Europe, fear of premature burial was widespread. Methods of determining one’s death were far from reliable. Even with modern medicine, doctors have been known to make mistakes. It happened recently in Honduras with three months pregnant Neysi Perez, who was accidentally buried alive.

Victorian era mourning traditions and particularly people’s relationship with death are fascinating. Despite the worry of being buried alive, people were comfortable taking photos of themselves with their deceased loved ones, who were posed in lifelike positions, surrounded by family, children holding their favorite toys, and eyes often propped open.

Victorian post-mortem infant
A deceased infant, dressed and positioned.

Safety Coffins

The fear of being buried alive peaked during the cholera epidemics. Victims of cholera often fell into a coma and were buried soon after death to prevent germs from spreading. As a result, safety coffins were invented, and it’s variations on the idea are still available on the market today.

In 1844, famous American poet Edgar Allan Poe published The Premature Burial, a short story about a man who is afraid of falling into a trance and being mistakenly buried.

Edgar Allan Poe The Premature Burial
'The Premature Burial' came with this terrifying illustration. No wonder the safety coffins were so popular.

One of the most popular kinds of safety coffins was called an escape vault. Each grave door was built as a hatch that could be opened from the inside, for those who didn’t have the patience to wait for someone else to come to the rescue.

Escape Vault

Often with critical design flaws, safety coffins from the 18th century were equipped with elaborate bell mechanisms to flag systems. With this, the trapped person could send a signal from the underworld if they awoke. Gravediggers were sometimes paid to keep watch over these graves and listen for the bells.

You can read more about some of the design of safety coffins from The Chirurgeon's Apprentice.

Victorian era safety coffins
Designs of safety coffins.

Despite the popularity and numerous patents, there are no reported cases of the people being saved by this great invention.

It’s being suggested the phrases such as “saved by the bell”, “dead ringer” and “graveyard shift” come from the use of safety coffins in the Victorian era. Unfortunately, these have been dismissed as urban myth. Which of course doesn’t stop you from thinking about safety coffins next time you hear the phrases.


Victorians were not only afraid of being buried alive, but also of disturbance after the death. Medical institutions needed bodies in order to learn about anatomy.

Medical students and scientists were becoming increasingly frustrated by the limited allowance of dead bodies, mainly the corpses of executed criminals, grave-robbing became popular. The government turned a blind eye to grave-rifling and kept publicity to a minimum to prevent people from realizing what was happening. Revelations led to public outrage, riots, and attacks. People believed in Resurrection and that the dead could not rise in an incomplete state.

Mortsafe in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.

The rich were able to afford heavy tombstones, vaults and iron cages. The poor began to place flowers and pebbles to detect disturbances.

Grave Torpedo
Americans took a more direct approach and boobytrapped their graves with Grave torpedos!

Waiting Mortuary

Another approach was the waiting mortuary. Or a “wait and watch” philosophy. The waiting mortuaries also removed the body from the home of the grieving family. Invented by French but perfected by the Germans in the early 19th century, the dead were laid out inside halls and monitored day and night for signs of revival, or until the decomposition of a body. Food, drink, and even cigars were on hand for any awakenings. To help disguise the smell of rotting flesh, bouquets of flowers were placed around the beds to perfume the air.

After the discovery of the heartbeat as a clear sign of life or death, the fear of being prematurely buried diminished.

Waiting Mortuary
Waiting Mortuary.

Victorian Post-Mortem Photography

And last, but not least, Victorian era post-mortem photography. Photographs of deceased loved ones were a normal part of the American and European culture. Postmortem photographs not only helped in the grieving process but often represented the only visual remembrance of the deceased and were among a family’s most precious possessions.

People instructed the photographer to give the impression that the deceased were still alive at the time of the photograph. Especially children, because of the high infant mortality rate. Often frames and supporting rods were built to support the deceased. Sometimes false eyes were painted onto closed eyelids. For many of these people, it was the only time in their entire lives they would be photographed.

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