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10 Famous People Who Were Afraid They'd Be Buried Alive

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The fear of being buried alive may be an ancient obsession—Pliny the Elder recorded cases among the Romans in his Natural History, written in 77 CE. But the golden age for this particular phobia was the Victorian era, when a sensationalist press met a public fascination with death (and some spotty science) to create a cottage industry of books and inventions devoted to premature burial and, most importantly, its prevention. Groups like the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial mushroomed, as did alarmist texts like One Thousand Persons Buried Alive by their Best Friends (published by a Boston doctor in 1883). 

Getting trapped six feet deep inside a coffin was a favorite plot device for Gothic writers, as it was for Edgar Allan Poe, whose 1844 story, “The Premature Burial” (among other works), contributed to the public preoccupation with the subject. By 1891, Italian psychiatrist Enrico Morselli said fears of premature burial were so widespread it was time to create an official medical term. He coined the word taphephobia (Greek for “grave” + “fear”). As Morselli described it, “The taphephobic … is an unhappy person, his every day, his every hour being tormented by the sudden occurrence of the idea of being buried alive.” 

Rampant taphephobia also led to the creation of so-called “safety coffins,” designed to prevent premature burial. Germany alone saw more than 30 of these designs patented in the second half of the 19th century. Most involved some mechanism for communicating with the living, such as ropes and other tools that were used to ring bells above ground (some safety coffins also included supplies of air, food, and water). In 1822, one Dr. Adolf Gutsmuth of Seehausen, Altmark (modern day Germany), demonstrated his design by having himself buried alive, where he “stayed underground for several hours and had a meal of soup, beer, and sausages served through the coffin's feeding tube.” 

Ten famous taphephobes are listed below, and while not all were gripped by a full-blown phobia, they all made provisions to avoid being declared dead before their time.

1. Hans Christian Andersen

According to his biographer Jackie Wullschlager, Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen was deathly afraid of being buried alive. He spent his final days at the home of his friends Dorothea and Moritz Melchior in Copenhagen, and as the end neared, begged Dorothea to cut his veins after he’d breathed what appeared to be his last breath. Dorothea “joked that he could do as he had often done, and leave a note saying ‘I only appear to be dead' beside him.” 

The note was a fixture of Andersen’s bedside table—some say he even wore it around his neck. Andersen was more than a little neurotic, and being buried alive was far from his only fear. According to Wullschlager, he also traveled with a rope in his luggage because he was afraid of fire, was terrified of dogs, and refused to eat pork out of fear of trichinosis. 

2. Frédéric Chopin 

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In his last written message, composer Frédéric Chopin is believed to have penned the words (in French): “The earth is suffocating. Swear to make them cut me open, so I won’t be buried alive.” (Some biographers translate the scrawled word “earth” as “cough”—Chopin was diagnosed with tuberculosis.) Chopin’s precise cause of death has never been determined, though researchers have long wanted to study his heart, entombed in alcohol in the pillar of a Warsaw church, to test the theory that he might have died of cystic fibrosis. 

3. George Washington 

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A few hours before he died, George Washington said to his secretary: "I am just going. Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the Vault in less than three days after I am dead." The request wasn't uncommon for his time: Before the invention of modern stethoscopes, the onset of putrefaction—which generally happens to corpses within a couple of days—was the only sure sign of death. 

His nephew, United States Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, was even more explicit in his protections against premature burial. He told his doctor: “[M]y thumbs are not to be tied together—nor anything put on my face or any restraint upon my Person by Bandages, &c. My Body is to be placed in an entirely plain coffin with a flat Top and a sufficient number of holes bored through the lid and sides—particularly about the face and head to allow Respiration if Resuscitation should take place and having been kept so long as to ascertain whether decay may have occurred or not, the coffin is to be closed up.” 

4. Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Victorian novelist and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton is to blame for the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night.” (The line has since spawned the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, where entrants compete each year to create the worst opening lines in literature.) But spare some pity for the guy: He was so concerned about one day waking up in a coffin that he asked for his heart to be punctured before he was buried, just in case. 

5. Alfred Nobel 

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Alfred Nobel was the inventor of dynamite. Although invented for non-military purposes, he felt that his invention would help bring about peace by making war unpalatable. The Nobel Prizes were created by his will, which left the bulk of his vast estate to the creation of a fund for prizes awarded to those who “conferred the greatest benefit on mankind" in the preceding year. The final portion of Nobel’s will, however, reflected a different preoccupation. He wrote: "It is my express wish that following my death my veins shall be opened, and when this has been done and competent Doctors have confirmed clear signs of death, my remains shall be cremated in a so-called crematorium.” 

6. Auguste Renoir 

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According to a memoir by his son Jean Renoir, the French painter Auguste Renoir repeatedly expressed a fear of being buried alive. His son insisted a doctor do "whatever was necessary" to ensure the artist was really and truly dead before being buried. 

7. Arthur Schopenhauer 

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According to the historian Jan Bondeson, the influential German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer "freely admitted to a fear of premature interment.” He requested that his corpse stay aboveground for five days, so it would be good and rotten before burial. 

8. Nikolai Gogol 

Russian author Nikolai Gogol (famous for his short story “The Overcoat” and the novel Dead Souls) was both fascinated and terrified by the prospect of premature burial. He wrote in a letter to a friend that he was amazed humans could stay in a trance and see, hear, and feel, without being able to do anything to prevent premature burial. His will specified that he not be buried until he was putrefying and without a heartbeat. 

Supposedly, when Gogol was exhumed several decades later (Russian authorities had decided to demolish the cemetery where he’d been buried), his body had shifted and was lying on its side, giving rise to a legend that his worst fear had come true—he’d been buried alive. While it’s tempting to believe such a dramatic story, corpses can shift after death thanks to putrefaction and earth movements. 

9. Johann Nepomuk Nestroy 

According to Jan Bondeson, Austrian writer Johann Nepomuk Nestroy took elaborate precautions against premature burial:

In his will, he declared that the risk of premature burial was the only thing he feared in his present situation and that his studies of the literature on this subject had taught him that the doctors could not be relied on to distinguish dead people from living ones. His body was to be kept in an open coffin for two days, in a waiting mortuary with a signaling apparatus that would herald any signs of life. Even after burial, the coffin lid was not to be nailed shut. 

10. Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield 

Philip Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, was a British statesman and wit who is now perhaps best known for the letters to his illegitimate son that he wrote almost daily for 30 years, beginning in 1737. (Not everyone was a fan: After the letters were first published in 1774, Samuel Johnson wrote that they taught "the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing-master.") While not exactly crippled by a fear of premature burial, Stanhope made reference to the predicament in a letter to his son’s wife written in 1769: “All I desire for my own burial is not to be buried alive; but how or where, I think, must be entirely indifferent to every rational creature."

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18 Smart Products To Help You Kick Off Summer
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Whether you’re trying to spiff up your backyard barbeque or cultivate your green thumb, these summertime gadgets will help you celebrate the season from solstice to the dog days.

1. ROSÉ WINE GLASSES; $60

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11 Things You Might Not Know About Johann Sebastian Bach
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Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. PEOPLE DISAGREE ABOUT WHEN TO CELEBRATE HIS BIRTHDAY.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. HE WAS THE CENTER OF A MUSICAL DYNASTY.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. BACH TOOK A MUSICAL PILGRIMAGE THAT PUTS EVERY ROAD TRIP TO WOODSTOCK TO SHAME.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. HE BRAWLED WITH HIS STUDENTS.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. BACH SPENT 30 DAYS IN JAIL FOR QUITTING HIS JOB.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. THE BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS WERE A FAILED JOB APPLICATION.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. HE WROTE ONE OF THE WORLD'S GREATEST COFFEE JINGLES.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. IF BACH CHALLENGED YOU TO A KEYBOARD DUEL, YOU WERE GUARANTEED TO BE EMBARRASSED.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. SOME OF HIS MUSIC MAY HAVE BEEN COMPOSED TO HELP INSOMNIA.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. HE WAS BLINDED BY BOTCHED EYE SURGERY.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. NOBODY IS 100 PERCENT CONFIDENT THAT BACH IS BURIED IN HIS GRAVE.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

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