If necessity is the mother of invention, death is its eccentric aunt. For centuries, humankind has been preoccupied with what happens to our bodies after we die. The result has been a grim procession of inventions intended to make our graves safer, sturdier, and in some cases, easier to flee. Some of these grave innovations are practical, but others border on the bizarre and downright creepy. Here are seven of the strangest.
1. THE SAFETY COFFIN
Leave it to the Victorians to fear being buried alive more than death itself. In the late 19th century, books and newspapers were full of stories of terrifying premature internments, although it's not clear how many actually occurred. The solution to the possibly-made-up problem was the safety coffin, or coffin alarm. These devices—of which there were several—most often employed a bell or other noise-making apparatus that could be manipulated by a person trapped inside a buried coffin to alert those aboveground. Many also included a hatch that would let fresh air into the coffin, allowing the prematurely buried victim to breathe until rescue came. One of the more famous of these devices was created by the Russian Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki, and included a spring-loaded compartment atop the grave that would pop open like a jack-in-the box if there were any bodily movement below.
2. THE ESCAPE COFFIN
A more elaborate cousin of the safety coffin, escape coffins were built for those prematurely declared dead who didn’t have the patience to wait for someone else to come to the rescue. One such coffin, patented in 1843 and intended for use in vaults, had a spring-loaded lid that could be opened with the merest movement of a head or hand. Another more extreme example was the burial vault retired firefighter Thomas Pursell designed for himself and his family at a cemetery in Westport, Pennsylvania. The ventilated vault could be opened from the inside by a patented wheel lock. Pursell was indeed buried there in 1937, but so far he has not emerged.
3. THE WAITING MORTUARY
The waiting mortuary, a slightly more practical approach to avoiding premature burial, was most popular in Germany in the 19th century. Corpses were laid out inside these stately halls and monitored day and night for signs of revival or, more often than not, decomposition. Sometimes, strings attached to bells would be tied around fingers and toes—a precursor to the coffin alarm. When Mark Twain visited one in Munich in 1880, he wrote:
"There were 36 corpses of adults in sight, stretched on their backs on slightly slanted boards, in three long rows—all of them with wax-white, rigid faces, and all of them wrapped in white shrouds. Along the sides of the room were deep alcoves, like bay windows, and in each of these lay several marble-visaged babes, utterly hidden and buried under banks of fresh flowers ... Around a finger of each of these fifty still forms, both great and small, was a ring, and from the ring a wire led to the ceiling, and thence to a bell in a watch-room yonder, where, day and night, a watchman always sits alert and ready to spring to the aid of any of that pallid company who, waked out of death, shall make a movement."
4. CAST-IRON COFFINS
Inventor Almond D. Fisk was less concerned with premature burial than he was with delayed burial, such as when someone died overseas and transporting the body home would take weeks. In 1848, he patented his cast-iron coffin, which could preserve bodies for extended periods of time. Similar in shape to an Egyptian sarcophagus, these ornate coffins also included hinged faceplates, which could be opened to reveal the face of the deceased through a pane of glass.
5. REUSABLE COFFINS
Around 1784, Austria’s Emperor Joseph II grew so concerned about Vienna’s extravagant funerals (not to mention dwindling wood supplies and cemetery space) that he instituted the use of a reusable coffin. The wooden coffin contained a trap door in the bottom through which corpses, wrapped in sacks, would be discreetly dropped into their graves. The coffin could then be reused for other funerals, which would save wood and hasten decomposition of Vienna’s dead. The Viennese, however, were outraged at such an invention, and the drop-bottom coffin order was rescinded, meaning that reusable coffins never actually became part of Viennese funeral customs.
In the 19th century, grave robbers known as "resurrection men" prowled UK and American cemeteries looking for fresh corpses to sell to medical schools. The problem was especially grave, pun intended, in Scotland. Thus came the mortsafe, a heavy wrought-iron cage or stone placed over gravesites to prevent the theft of corpses. It would be placed over the grave for a few weeks until the robbers lost interest, and then sometimes moved to a new grave. Although the practice of grave robbing diminished in the UK after the Anatomy Act of 1832, which gave medical schools a legal way to obtain cadavers for study, mortsafes would survive a few more decades. They can sometimes still be seen on older burials, and are occasionally misinterpreted as cages meant to keep vampires from rising from their graves.
7. COFFIN TORPEDOS
When incidents of corpse stealing increased after the U.S. Civil War, trigger-happy Americans had a more explosive way of theft-proofing their graves—the coffin torpedo. Contrary to what its name implies, a coffin torpedo was either a greatly modified firearm that shot lead balls when triggered by the opening of the coffin lid or a landmine-like device that sat atop the coffin and would detonate if the grave was disturbed.
A version of this story originally ran in 2014.