7 Weird Graveyard Inventions
If necessity is the mother of invention, then death is its eccentric aunt. For centuries, mankind 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 several cases, escapable. Some of these grave innovations are practical. Others, however, border on the bizarre and downright creepy. Here are seven of the strangest.
1. Coffin Alarm
Leave it to the Victorians to fear being buried alive more than death itself. That fear, mind you, wasn’t unfounded. Thanks to cholera and yellow fever epidemics and sketchy medical care, the 19th century saw several notorious cases of premature burial. The remedy to that rare-but-real problem was the coffin alarm, also known as the safety coffin. These devices—of which there were plenty—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.
2. The Escape Coffin
A more elaborate cousin to the coffin alarm, 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. Located at Wildwood Cemetery in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, the ventilated vault could be opened from the inside by a handwheel attached to the door. Pursell was indeed buried there in 1937. So far, he has not emerged.
3. Waiting Mortuary
The waiting mortuary, a far more practical approach to avoiding premature burial, was the brainchild of a Frenchman but perfected by the Germans in the early 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.
4. Cast-Iron Coffin
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 Coffin
Austria’s Emperor Joseph II was the Holy Roman Emperor from 1765 to 1790. Around 1784, he grew so concerned about Vienna’s growing interest in death and extravagant funerals (not to mention its 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.
In the early 19th century, grave robbers known as resurrection men prowled U.K. 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 moved to a new grave. Although the practice of grave robbing vanished with the Anatomy Act of 1832, which gave medical schools a legal way to obtain cadavers for study, mortsafes would survive a few more decades.
7. Coffin Torpedo
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.