On 23rd January 1816 a strange and macabre incident occurred at Alfriston Church in East Sussex.
At this time when the ‘gothic novel’ was popular, taphophobia was rife. Taphophobia is the fear of being buried alive. This fear was so great that people could purchase ‘safety coffins’ in which a recently awaked corpse could not only survive, but raise the alarm.
In 1791 Robert Robinson of Manchester was buried with a pane of glass in his coffin. This was put into his mausoleum and the cemetery staff were ordered to regularly check that he was still dead. In 1792 a German duke, Ferdinand of Brunswick had been buried in a coffin which was locked rather than nailed shut. The Duke had the key in his pocket and a tube was inserted into the coffin so he could receive a supply of air should he wake up.
News of these and other reports of people waking up in mortuaries were reported in the press and fears of being buried alive reached Sussex. These stories may have been the cause of the curious incident in Sussex after Mildred Reed, of Alfriston died aged just 24 and was buried at St Andrew’s Church on 12th January 1816.
A few days later an old man passing the church said he had heard a noise coming from Mildred’s newly dug grave. Rumours started to circulate in the village that poor young Mildred had been buried alive so, as a result, on 23rd January her grave was opened and her body exhumed. According to the parish registers this was done in the presence of a ‘great multitude of people.’ It seems remarkable that the exhumation of a young girl was a public spectacle but I suppose that this was to ensure that the rumours did not continue.
John Benn, the Curate wrote in the Parish register. “A rumour having gone about that this young woman was buried alive, her grave was opened eleven days after interment in the presence of the minister of the parish, one of the churchwardens, the medical gentleman who attended her in her last illness and a great multitude of people, all of whom on inspection of the body, were perfectly satisfied that the rumour was unfounded. One old man who is very deaf said he heard a noise proceed from the grave two or three days before the exhumation.”
I feel sorry for her poor parents who must have had to endure this sorry episode.
Another Alfriston resident Charles Springate Brooker of Burnt House, on the Seaford Road also suffered from taphophobia. He died on 12th May 1851 and was buried just outside the church, near the south porch. His fear of being buried alive was so great that he ordered that a hole be left in his coffin connected with a hole in his tombstone so he could call for help should he wake up. I have looked at the graves at Alfriston but can find none with any holes in, so presumably, 170 years later, Charles is still dead.
History of Alfriston by Florence Pagden (1895)