In Prevention of Vivisepulture

Taphophobia – the fear of being buried alive – seems to have been a concern for Henry Wood Booth, father of Cranbrook’s co-founder George Gough Booth. Henry was always a tinkerer, inventing a number of things throughout his life–including things for the afterlife.

Figures 1-5, US Letters Patent No. 619,929, issued to Henry Wood Booth on February 21, 1899.

In 1897, he applied for a patent for a coffin, issued on February 21, 1899. The coffin ensured fresh airflow in case of vivisepulture, the burying of something alive.

This invention relates to coffins, and has for its object an improved coffin and device to be used therewith which is intended to cause a current of fresh air to flow over the surface of the body placed in the coffin for the double purpose of furnishing to the body, if by any chance the person should be still living, a supply of pure air, and which shall, if the body be dead, carry away the gases produced by decomposition.

US Letters Patent No. 619,929, issued February 21, 1899
La Caisse oblongue, illustration d’Harry Clarke, 1919, from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Premature Burial.” Harry Clarke, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Okay, so it was not ALL about being buried alive, but really, wasn’t that his main concern?

The fear of “unintentional burial” has likely existed forever, but peaked in the 19th century during the era’s many cholera epidemics. The fear was not helped by fictitious reports in the writings of Edgar Allen Poe: “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Cask of Amontillado.” Poe even penned “The Premature Burial” on the subject, published in 1844. Newspapers sensationalized storied of premature burial, including thirty-six in the Detroit Free Press between 1880 and 1886.

The first recorded safety coffin was constructed on the orders of Ferdinand, Prince of Brunswick-Lüneburg, a German-Prussian field marshal, before his death in 1792. Many inventors put their own take on the safety coffin, often employing airways, flags, or bells to let those on the outside know the deceased was actually alive.

Portrait of Henry Wood Booth in Cranbrook, Kent, England, 1901, by Stickells & Son. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

In his paten application, Henry Wood Booth wrote that:

The coffin differs from the ordinary coffin only in that at the head end and near the top of the head end there is an inlet-opening for the ingress of fresh air and on the top, near the bottom of the coffin, there is an outlet opening, into which there is inserted an outlet-pipe provided with means for producing a forced draft through the pipe, which shall draw air from within the coffin and convey it away.

US Letters Patent No. 619,929, issued February 21, 1899

Despite the fear of burial while still alive, there are no documented cases of anybody being saved by a safety coffin. And modern medical practices (not to mention modern embalming!) have pretty much eliminated the fear of being “buried alive.”

Henry Wood Booth’s grave marker, Greenwood Cemetery, Birmingham, Michigan. Photo by Leslie Mio, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

On March 17, 1925, Henry Wood Booth, “the Sage of Cranbrook”, died in the cottage where he and his wife Clara had lived for seventeen years. His grave marker in Greenwood Cemetery, in Birmingham, Michigan, is a granite slab, covering the whole of his plot. As far as we know, Henry was not buried in his patented coffin.

Leslie S. Mio, Associate Registrar, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

2 thoughts on “In Prevention of Vivisepulture

  1. Leslie, and now, thanks to this blog, I have ANOTHER phobia that I can add to my list. Even as early as 1925 when HWB died, his family, friends and colleagues would have been able to realize that yes, he had actually died. I am sure there was no mistake that he was dead (and not alive) and that he could be buried in a normal casket.


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