The Concept of Being Buried Alive in Edgar Allan Poe’s Works

For the final day of Gothic Romance Week, I have decided to take a look at the concept of being buried alive as it is used in Poe’s works.   The thought of possibly being buried alive is a core fear for many people, making the appearance of this in fictional works a truly horrifying idea.

We see characters buried alive in stories like The Cask of Amontillado and The Black Cat.   Both of these tales hinge on the horror of being buried alive, specifically walled in.   The reason for this form of burial is revenge in The Cask of Amontillado.    The reason for the burial in The Black Cat is the paranoia of the protagonist.   In The Black Cat, it is the cat itself who is buried alive, but it allows the cat to alert others to the narrator’s murder of his wife.

Now that I have mentioned two prime examples of usage of the concept of burying someone alive in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, the question is why?   Why did Poe feature people, and animals, being buried alive in his works?   The answer is that being buried alive was a realistic occurrence in the life of a Victorian.   With the rate of the disease being so high it was all the more likely that someone could have been buried before they were fully dead.   In the case of consumption, it was a long and drawn-out disease, meaning that it was not unheard of for the person to appear dead and then start breathing again.

The possibility of burying a person before their time because of the disease that is slowly taking their life is why there was the usage of bells in cemeteries.   The bell was connected to the corpse, usually tied to the wrist, and then it was placed next to the grave.   If the bell was heard to be wrung, then the grave would be dug up to save the person who was still alive.   It is this climate that Edgar Allan Poe lived in, which is why the concept of being buried before you are dead is not surprising to find in his works.   It is also probably inspired by the fact that he lost many people to consumption, making his usage of this concept even more poignant!

I hope that you have enjoyed this short analysis of the use of people being buried alive in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, as well as the possible reason why it inspired him so.   What do you think of the usage of people being buried alive in the works of Poe?   Do you have any thoughts on Victorian death customs?   Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

Note: I wanted to take a moment to wish everyone a very Happy Halloween and Blessed Samhain!

Further Reading

  • The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe  
  • The Victorian Book of the Dead by Chris Woodyard