“Saved by the Bell”: A Fear of Being Buried Alive?
21 January 2015 by Amy Burton
There are many phrases and sayings that we all use on a frequent basis, but have you ever stopped to consider the origins of any of those phrases? Some theories stem from old wives’ tales, but others are more credible. In any event, some of the explanations can certainly be thought provoking.
“Saved by the bell”
There are two schools of thought for the origin of this saying, the first relates to boxing and the chiming of the bell to indicate the end of the match, but the other makes for a more interesting read.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the fear of being buried alive reached an all time high during the cholera epidemics. Due to the sheer number of individuals being buried, stories came to light of a few who had been buried alive – or at least were rumoured to have been. The medical checks undertaken on a deceased’s body were limited to say the least at this time, but it is thought that perhaps even more short cuts were taken in order to keep up with the influx of new bodies.
It was in 1792, after hearing of such horror stories, that Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick ordered the creation of his own ‘safety coffin’. The coffin consisted of windows, an air tube to allow ventilation and the omittance of nails to secure the coffin lid. Instead, a lock was fitted to the coffin and the Duke was to be buried holding the key to the lock. He would also hold a key to his tomb door.
It was many years later, in 1829, that Dr Johann Gottfried Taberger designed the new and improved version of such a coffin. He decided that it was best to incorporate some form of warning feature, so as to allow people to hear that a person hadn’t in fact passed into the afterlife. His design provided for the body to have strings attached to its hands, head and feet. The string then led out of the coffin and bells were attached above ground. This way, if an individual could not be heard shouting, then they could move their body and notify the watchmen that they were alive.
This is the second explanation as to where the phrase ‘Saved by the bell’ originates from – the bell would be rung and, in turn, your life would be saved. Some also believe that this is where the phrase ‘dead ringer’ stems from.
Going back to the practical elements, there was however one flaw with this technique. In the case of an individual who had died, when their body started to decompose, it caused swelling and shifting of the body parts. This resulted in the bells above their coffins chiming; not a pleasant sight for the heroic watchmen who came running to their rescue with spades in hand…
A further improvement was therefore made, which consisted of a housing built around the bells to prevent them chiming after a slight movement. The strings had to be pulled with intent for the bells to set into motion. The design was also updated to provide for a second tube to be inserted into the coffin if the bells were rung, for air to be pumped in until the coffin could be dug up.
You may think that due to improved medical processes and post-death checks that taphophobia, the fear of being buried alive, is no longer a recognised fear. Excuse the pun, but the fear of premature-burial is still very much alive today.
Some individuals choose to express their wish that their burial, or cremation, should not take place until at least 3 weeks after the date of their death; thus ensuring plenty of time to alert somebody.
Others who may have a more significant fear can make express provision that the lid of their coffin should not be sealed until the very last moment. Although requirements can differ, the lid of your coffin can often remain unsealed during the funeral service and up until the point of charging, i.e. at the point of burial or cremation.
This fear can sometimes also be the reason why an individual chooses to have a green burial, specifically with a wicker coffin. The coffins are usually light and airy and are sealed with natural materials.
Regardless of the history of this saying, the central issue is one that is still regarded as plausible by some – but thankfully we just don’t have to revert to bells anymore.