Help! I’m Buried Alive!

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

“The most horrible torture which a human being may be exposed to is undoubtedly to be buried in a state of lethargy, that is to say, alive, and wake up in his coffin, finally to die, with the consciousness of helplessness, and with the awful sufferings upon which it is unnecessary to dwell.”1

So begins the pamphlet “Premature Burial: Its Prevention” by Emile Camis, which he read at a meeting of the Medico-Legal Society in December 1899.

Camis, a Parisian lawyer, described an apparatus invented by his client, Count Michel de Karnice Karnicki, called “Le Karnice.” The device, he claimed, “could do away with the uncertainty of establishing death and save people buried alive.”1

Le Karnice, unactivated by movement within.

Fear of premature burial was widespread in the late 1700s through the 1800s; sensational accounts caused the fear to remain common in France even after it abated elsewhere in Europe.2 The phobia may have stemmed from a growing understanding of the process of death, along with awareness of the causes of contagious diseases leading to the quick removal of bodies during epidemics—prematurely, some feared.2,3 This phobia (taphephobia) led to the patenting of 22 safety coffins in the United States and more than 30 in Germany.2,3 But the most popular safety coffin was “Le Karnice.”3

As explained, movement inside the coffin caused air and light to enter. Outside the coffin, the movement triggered the rise of a ball and the sound of a bell. In addition, “an iron tube, through which air and light passes, as soon as the patient moves, becomes a speaking tube, carrying sound with great force.”1

Le Karnice, activated.

Camis continued, “The most authorized professors, the most renowned physicians, the most competent hygienists who have tried the ‘Karnice,’ have been unanimous in their appreciations favorable to its immediate application.”1

Those must have been ghoulish product testing sessions.

Happy Halloween!


1. Camis, E. (1900). “Premature burial: its prevention.”

2. Bondeson, J. (1997). A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

3. Dibble, C. (2010). The Dead Ringer: Medicine, Poe, and the fear of premature burial. Historia Medicinae, 2(1). Retrieved October 29, 2013 from