Everyone has irrational fears. Some of us are terrified of various animals, insects, or other creatures that are not only not very dangerous but also not encountered often in our daily lives. Some of us fear activities like public speaking for no good reason aside from a whispery voice in the back of our heads that warns of death by Power Point presentation.
But some irrational fears aren’t actually all that irrational. You might think a fear of being buried alive is pretty irrational, considering you have to go through an awful lot before you’re actually buried. But the fact is people have been buried alive. And as Smithsonian Magazine reminds us, plenty of people have been sufficiently concerned about being put underground before their time to design actual, real "safety coffins" with emergency escape hatches or ways to signal the surface that you’re not quite dead yet (in fact, you’re feeling much better).
The world is divided into two people — those who hear about being buried alive and nope out of the conversation immediately and those who have a burning curiosity to know what the experience is like. If you’re the latter, good news — here are 12 people who were buried alive and lived to tell the tale.
Essie Dunbar was saved by her sister’s lateness
Back in 1915, the "modern" part of modern medicine was still lagging behind a bit, and our understanding of epilepsy as a neurological disorder was fairly primitive. According to author Jan Bondeson, when Essie Dunbar, a 30-year old woman in South Carolina, suffered a sudden epileptic attack, the doctor who attended her found no signs of life and declared her dead. Dunbar’s body was placed in a simple wooden coffin, and the funeral was scheduled for late the next morning in order to give her sister time to travel there.
Although the ceremony was fairly lengthy, Dunbar was lowered into the ground before her sister arrived. As explained by the MyHeritage Blog, Dunbar’s sister showed up just a few minutes after the burial and pleaded with the ministers to dig up the body so she could say her final goodbyes, which they agreed to do. When the coffin lid was removed, Dunbar sat up and smiled, unaware of what had happened to her.
To say there was pandemonium would be an understatement. The other mourners thought they were seeing a ghost and fled, screaming, and the ministers fell into the open grave and suffered severe injuries. Dunbar never quite lived it down, with some in town regarding her as a zombie of sorts — but she lived another 47 years, passing away peacefully in 1962.
Margorie McCall was saved by thieves
If you’re worried about being buried alive, you might start walking around with a lot of flashy jewelry on display. That strategy worked for Margorie McCall back in 1695.
As reported by BBC News, McCall’s grave in Belfast sports an unusual note — "Lived once, buried twice." McCall caught a fever, and in the late 17th century a fever was a lot more dangerous than it is today, so when her condition declined rapidly and she stopped being responsive, everyone simply assumed she was dead. Her family quickly organized a funeral and buried her in Shankill Graveyard.
According to the MyHeritage Blog, McCall was buried wearing a very valuable ring that she often sported, and that detail didn’t escape the attention of local thieves who made their living robbing recent graves. Shortly after McCall was in the ground, the thieves came and dug her up. They tried to remove the ring from her finger but it wouldn’t budge, so they prepared to cut off her finger in order to get it. That’s when MCCall woke up and screamed, scaring them off.
She apparently climbed out of the coffin, went home, and nearly scared her husband to death. She had another child and lived ten more years, being buried for one last time in 1705.
Angelo Hays was saved by a suspicious insurance adjuster
According to Innovative History, Angelo Hays was a passionate motorcycle lover from a very young age. By the time he was 19 years old in 1937, he rode his constantly. You can probably guess where this is going — one day he crashed his bike, smashing into a brick wall. Hays was sent flying, and when people rushed to his aid he was so badly disfigured apparently everyone on the scene just assumed there was no way he could have survived. The doctors wouldn’t even let his parents see the body because it was so upsetting, and so he was buried.
As Forbes notes, his father had recently taken out a large life insurance policy on his son — which was lucky for Hays, because the insurance company got suspicious. They demanded he be exhumed — at which point he was discovered to be alive, just in a very deep coma. After surgery he made a full recovery. As author Jan Bondeson tells us, Hays designed a high-tech coffin with a music player and other comforts and went on tour with it, briefly becoming a celebrity in France due to his ordeal. He even performed on television from 6 feet underground. Hays finally died for real in 2008.
Antony Britton and the failed magic trick
As you might imagine, most of the time when someone is buried alive it’s either a tragic accident or a terrifying crime. But not always! As BBC News tells us, sometimes it’s done on-purpose.
Antony Britton is a self-described "escapologist," and in 2015 he attempted to do something his idol Harry Houdini had once attempted but never managed to pull off — be handcuffed and buried under 6 feet of dirt, without any breathing apparatus or other assistance — and escape. Houdini attempted the trick in 1915, and another professional escape artists, Alan Alan, tried it in 1949, also almost dying in the process.
On Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, Britton was handcuffed, then lowered 6 feet into the earth. Dirt was piled on top of him, and 6 feet worth of dirt is pretty heavy stuff. As noted by NPR, Britton started off well, getting his hands free, and began the process of excavating himself from the grave. But the dirt shifted, pinning his arm, and he realized he was trapped. He lost consciousness, and only the quick action of his team saved his life.
As The Guardian reports, Britton was mocked pretty soundly for the failed trick, but he also claimed to have had a near-death experience in which he saw his grandfathers speaking to him when he was a child.
Terrorists buried a little boy named Ibrahim in Nigeria
While you can imagine that being buried alive under any circumstances is pretty terrifying, some of those circumstances are more terrifying than others, even if you survive. Such is the case with a young boy named Ibrahim who lives in Nigeria.
As Face 2 Face Africa reports, the young boy was at home with his parents and three siblings when shots rang out in their peaceful village. The terrorist group, Boko Haram, who have killed thousands and displaced millions in Nigeria and surrounding countries, had come. In the terrified confusion, Ibrahim’s mother fled with his siblings in one direction, while Ibrahim and his father ran in the opposite direction.
According to The United Nations Refugee Agency, the terrorists caught up to them and killed Ibrahim’s father, then hit him in the head with a machete. Thinking him dead, they buried poor Ibrahim in a shallow grave and left him there. When his sister and other relatives returned to look for him a few days later, they discovered brave little Ibrahim because of the flies that were swarming around his head, which had become exposed, leaving the rest of his body still buried under the sandy soil.
Nicholas Taylor underwent a life-changing ritual
Not many of us have "be buried alive" on our bucket list — in fact, most people have it on their anti-bucket list, the list of things you intend to avoid at all costs for the rest of your life. But then, you’re not Nicholas Taylor.
As Taylor writes in The Guardian, he experienced a great deal of grief and tragedy in his life, going deaf at a young age and suffering through his parents’ bitter divorce. As he grew older, he lost his father and two close friends and experienced what he describes as a "nervous breakdown." He discovered meditation, and that set him on a path to spirituality and healing — a path that led him to engage in a "shamanic" ritual that involved digging his own shallow grave and being buried overnight.
As Taylor explains, he and 18 others met nightly to build trust and dig the graves. He admits to being terrified as he lay down, the grave covered with planks of wood and then several feet of dirt, leaving just an orange-sized air hole. He says he emerged the next morning cleansed, and that the experience of being buried alive saved his life.
The unidentified Brazilian zombie
There are bad days, and then there are days that end with you being buried alive. Back in 2013, one person had an extremely bad day.
As reported by Business Insider, the first really bad day happened to a former government employee in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He got into an altercation with some other men and was beaten so badly he lost consciousness. The attackers transported him to a local cemetery — whether to hide their crime, because they thought he was dead, or some other reason — and tossed him into an empty grave.
According to The Huffington Post, a woman went to her family’s tomb to pay her respects. While she was at the cemetery, she witnessed the man apparently digging himself out of a nearby grave. Before you could shout "holy moly that’s a zombie!" the woman fled the scene and contacted the local authorities. Emergency workers arrived, and as you can see in this video they managed to free the man from the grave and get him medical attention. According to reports, the man was understandably freaked out. He survived his ordeal but experienced psychological problems.
Lu Xiayun thought her daughter was stillborn
Stories about people being buried alive can be terrifying, and even occasionally hilarious, depending on the circumstances. But they can also be tragic.
As reported by Christian Today, in 2014 a Chinese woman named Lu Xiayun went into sudden labor while working at her family farm in Dongdong, Liaoning Province. She and her husband believed she was four months pregnant, and after she lost a large quantity of blood during childbirth, and the baby was found to be unresponsive, they assumed it had been born far too soon. Xiayun was rushed to the local hospital for treatment, but the baby was left behind to be buried by the girl’s grandmother.
According to The Huffington Post, doctors at the hospital asked after the child and became concerned when they learned that no physician had examined her. The husband realized what he’d done under tremendous emotional stress and raced home. When he dug the little girl up, he discovered she was very much alive and raced her back to the hospital. Doctors concluded that Xiayun had actually been six months pregnant. The little girl needed intense treatment the family could not afford, and after three days they had to take their struggling premature baby home. Once their story got out, however, locals began donating, and they were able to bring her back to the hospital so she could be placed in an incubator to give her the best chance of survival.
Mick Meaney did it for fame
Let’s say you’re a 33-year old builder in Mitchelstown, Ireland, and you’re looking for a way to become famous. Let’s say it’s 1968 and, bizarrely, there’s a bit of a fad for being buried alive, and an American named Digger O’Dell held the record — 45 days underground. Because you were once buried accidentally in an accident and came through pretty well, you figure you can beat that.
It might sound crazy, but as reported by The Journal that’s exactly what happened when Mick Meaney announced he was going to break the record for being buried alive. Meaney took the stunt seriously, training hard for the big day to ensure he would be physically capable. The local media began covering his preparations, and on Feb. 21, 1968, when Meaney was lowered into the ground inside a specially made coffin, a huge crowd showed up to watch. Meaney was a celebrity.
The Irish Post tells us Meaney shattered the record, lasting 61 days. Sadly, no one showed up from The Guinness Book of World Records, so no official record was recorded (Guinness has since stopped listing life-threatening stunts like being buried alive). Meaney managed to exercise and keep himself occupied in the coffin by reading. He emerged a huge celebrity, but it didn’t last — a few years after his stunt he was largely forgotten, even in his home town. He lived another 35 years in relative obscurity.
Tom Guerin was a victim of famine
As History tells us, The Great Hunger in Ireland, also known as the Potato Famine, remains a lesson concerning over-reliance on a single crop. The poor tenant farmers in Ireland were almost completely dependent on the potato for sustenance, so when the potato crops failed due to a fungal disease many people lost their livelihoods, their homes — and literally starved to death.
As noted by Ireland Calling, the sheer numbers of people dying put immense pressure on society to process them. At the same time, hunger brought ill health to many, weakening people to a point where they collapsed and fell into comas. These two facts converged on one poor young boy named Tom Guerin. Guerin was just 3 years old when he suffered an illness exacerbated by malnutrition and fell into a coma that was mistaken for death. He was placed in a mass grave and buried.
According to The Irish Examiner, Guerin was discovered some time later alive among the thousands of corpses. His legs had been broken, possibly during the burial process, and he was very weak — but also very alive. He was pulled from the grave and lived for another 62 years. Crippled from his ordeal, Guerin was a local character who walked with a permanent limp and made his living as a beggar. He embraced his local celebrity and happily reminded everyone that he was the boy who’d been buried alive.
Natalya Pasternak was buried by a … bear
Did you know that bears sometimes bury their food to preserve it from other predators, sort of the way we humans will write our name on our lunch in the break room fridge? One person who knows this is Natalya Pasternak, because she was buried —alive — by a bear
As reported by The Siberian Times, Pasternak went into the forests near her hometown of Tynda in southeastern Russia with a friend to collect sap from the local birch trees. The pair came across a wild bear, which attacked them. Pasternak’s friend was raked by the bear’s claws but managed to run off. Unfortunately, Pasternak wasn’t so fast, and the bear brutally mauled her. Which is bad enough, but then the bear, thinking she was dead, proceeded to bury her under dirt and leaves in order to hide her from other animals and preserve her as a meal for later.
According to NBC News, a search party alerted by Pasternak’s companion went out looking for her and came across her buried up to her arms in the woods. They were forced to shoot the bear, which was perturbed that its dinner was being rescued, and Pasternak was taken to the local hospital with injuries that were described as "severe." She lived to tell the tale, however, saying that it reminded her "how beautiful life is."
A mother buried by her own son
When it comes to getting rid of someone in your life, burying them alive seems a lot less efficient than just moving away or blocking their number. But in 2020, a man in China chose to bury his own mother alive instead of, you know, moving out.
Global News tells us that a 58-year old man named Ma lived with his 79-year old mother. She was partially paralyzed and required constant care, and China has very little public support available to people caring for older or sick relatives — especially in rural areas. One day Ma’s wife observed him carting his mother off in a wheelbarrow then returning alone. When she asked where her mother-in-law had gone, he said something vague about her visiting with friends.
As Metro news reports, Ma’s wife didn’t quite believe this for some reason and decided to file a missing person report. The police called in Ma for questioning, and he immediately caved, admitting he’d taken his mother to a deserted cemetery on the edge of town. When the police found her, she’d been in her shallow grave for three days and was crying out for help. She went to the hospital and recovered from her ordeal. Her son is being investigated for attempted murder.