Friday, September 25, 2009

Poe Fridays: The Premature Burial

This week's Poe Fridays short story is the paranoia-inducing The Premature Burial. You can read it here.

The first half of the story gives supposedly real examples of people that have been buried alive. Some made it out safely and some didn't. The second half is the narrator's own story of how he suffered from catalepsy, a condition that mimicked death, and was in constant fear of premature burial by someone who didn't know of the condition. Apparently, this was a common fear at the time this story was written.
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.

I thought this was a bit of an exaggeration but apparently there were hundreds of such cases and there was a Victorian Society for the Prevention of People Being Buried Alive. This is also the era when they were fitting coffins with safety devices such as bells that the buried person could ring if they were indeed still alive.

I can only assume that this was a real fear for Poe as he wrote about it more than once. Yet in this story the narrator overcomes the fear after an incident where he believes he has been interred prematurely. Poe gives the opinion that the fear of death is crippling and that life is better lived without that fear. I doubt he ever lost his own fear of death though.

For next week, I've chosen the poem The Haunted Palace.

Admitting to a fear of small spaces, especially ones under dirt,


  1. Brrrr, the idea of being buried alive creeps me out so much. I do not blame the Victorians for worrying about it, given the state of medicine in those days. :P

  2. I'm not currently claustrophobic, but the thought of being buried alive could make me so! I don't blame Poe for being worried about it himself, especially if he had catalepsy.

  3. It really makes you wonder WHY this became a sufficiently frequent occurrence that they needed to take measures against it. I mean, were burials really rushed, that nobody stopped to make sure the corpse was actually dead? Were there a shortage of physicians? Had medical bracelets and death certificates yet to enter the scene? Maybe it was that over-developed Victorian sense of delicacy, that people thought a full examination of a corpse to be indecent? It seems like there would be more efficient ways of preventing premature burial than installing a bell inside the coffin, you know?

    It's kind of fascinating.

  4. I'm very sorry I didn't know about your Poe Fridays sooner!

  5. Jennysbooks - Yeah, the method that Poe mentions most frequently in his stories to prove someone is alive is the "breathing on the mirror" technique.

    Literary Feline - It was Poe's narrator that had catalepsy but it was definitely a good choice of disease to bring about the most paranoia possible!

    Emily - Yeah, you wouldn't think that there are that many diseases that mimic death but I saw something mentioned about a spike in this during the cholera outbreak so I'm not sure what was up. I feel like I need to do some research on this subject because I'm really curious!

  6. Rob - Welcome! I'm off to spend some time at your site ... it looks great!

  7. I am a Poe fan, but haven't heard of this one. Thanks for mentioning it!

  8. This one was not my favorite - it felt a little too "explainey" for me. Also, how many times do you think someone had to get buried alive before they decided to make a society for it? I think the reality is creepier than the fiction on this one!

  9. Poe wrote a number of stories about being buried alive - "The Fall of the House of Usher" for example.

    Critic Daniel Hoffman suggests that it's related to his fear of respiratory illness, like the one that killed his mother. I'm never quite sure about these psychological explanations.

  10. I just wanted to let you know that I'm skipping this post because I have a HUGE fear of being buried alive. So much so that when I die I want all my organs donated and then to be cremated. I think it's because about 15 (or more) years ago Days of Our Lives had a story line where someone was buried alive. I was too young to watch it, but my sisters let me watch it with them anyways.

  11. Elizabeth - I saw the mention of "hundreds"! I guess they couldn't just wait a day or two extra before burials?

    Amateur Reader - Hmm ... sounds like a stretch. I don't think you need to deeply explain a fear of being buried alive!

    J.T. - You crack me up! And yet I will admit to a fear of being buried, even dead ... so I'm going for the same thing -- donation and cremation. I don't like thinking about my body in a tight little box forever and I also don't want to rot.