News - from the past & the present

Woman buried alive – it actually happened

This is why people sat with a dead body in a casket for a few days in their homes before burial.This article was published in the March 30th 1837 edition of the Jacksonville Republican in Alabama. Jacksonville was in Benton County, Alabama.(later Calhoun County)


The particulars of an occurrence were related to us yesterday, which we have every reason to believe is an instance of the horrible effects resulting from hasty burial. An aged mulatto woman, named Woods, who resided in Barclay street, and was apparently in good health, complained on Sunday evening of a pain in her head, and almost instantly fell lifeless. She was supposed to be dead, and preparations were immediately made for her burial. On Monday afternoon about four o’clock, not more than twenty hours after her supposed death, the body was conveyed in the burying ground in St. Mary’s St. between sixth and seventh streets and consigned to the tomb.

The mourners departed, and the grave digger, a white man, proceeded to his task of filling up the grave. He had thrown a few shovels full of clay upon the coffin when he thought he heard a noise within the grave: he listened a while, then threw in a few more shovels full – but now he distinctly heard a groan proceeding from the corpse. Seized with a panic, he dropped his shovel and fled for assistance.

The coffin was after some time disinterred, and the lid was found to be partly forced off. It was immediately unscrewed, and the corpse discovered not in the position in which it had been placed; but turned round upon the side, and showing other evidence of having been alive while in the grave.

It was taken into the church and kept there until yesterday morning when no signs of life appearing, it was again interred. (Phil. Ledger)

Below is a newspaper clipping from the Pennsylvania Gazette Feb. 24, 1729 of being buried alive. The letter written as a “f” in the story is our “s” today.

FreeHearts: 2nd edition A Novel of Colonial America Col. John Washington (ancestor of President George Washington), Randall Revell, Tom Cottingham, Edmund Beauchamp ward off Indian attacks and conquer the wilds of Maryland’s Eastern shore in 17th century colonial America in this historical novel, inspired by true events.


About Donna R Causey

Donna R. Causey, resident of Alabama, was a teacher in the public school system for twenty years. When she retired, Donna found time to focus on her lifetime passion for historical writing. She developed the websites www.alabamapioneers and All her books can be purchased at and Barnes & Noble. She has authored numerous genealogy books. RIBBON OF LOVE: A Novel Of Colonial America (TAPESTRY OF LOVE) is her first novel in the Tapestry of Love about her family where she uses actual characters, facts, dates and places to create a story about life as it might have happened in colonial Virginia. Faith and Courage: Tapestry of Love (Volume 2) is the second book and the third FreeHearts: A Novel of Colonial America (Book 3 in the Tapestry of Love Series) Discordance: The Cottinghams (Volume 1) is the continuation of the story. . For a complete list of books, visit Donna R Causey

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  1. My dad drove an ambulance/hearse as a young man after WWII. He was transporting a deceased woman from the hospital to the funeral home. When he drove across a railroad track, the woman sat up! Got his attention, and he took her back home.

    1. Wow! I cannot imagine!

    2. I’m afraid when she sat up and got MY attention, she would have had the vehicle to drive herself back hime!

  2. They were called “wakes.” The body was laid out in the parlor of the home and family members would take turns sitting with the body for several days and night

    1. Really interesting info. Always wondered why folks did that. Now, what is also peculiar is WHY the practice was continued AFTER they began using embalming fluid. NO CHOICE anyone was going to awake then.

      Hey, I just realized why a Wake must have been been given the term WAKE. Lol… stands to reason, huh?

  3. I wouldn’t have been the man who covered this woman up the second time.

  4. Remember tells of it

  5. It is told in our mother’s family that her grandmother was buried alive, and the daughter was so insistent on having her dug up that after a few days the father did that and found that it had been true but she had really died again. There is a strong lineage of ESP in the family.

  6. I can remember hearing stories about this when I was a young child.

  7. Sittin up with the dead, as Jerry Clower would say…

  8. I ain’t sitting up with the dead no more. Ray Stevens. Give it a listen. You’ll laugh like crazy.

  9. My Mother’s people in Walker and Winston County were still doing this in the 50’s. Not all, but enough that it freaked me out.

    1. People down south still do this.

    2. yes, we did this for my Grandfather—I believe it was in the late 60’s.

  10. I remember those times of sitting up with the dead.Lots of funny stories I have heard about over the years.

  11. I have seen many shows where they did up old coffins and the insides of the lids are all scratched from the people trying to get out.

  12. That would be rare today as most people are embalmed, at least in the US.

  13. When I was a child, dad’s family sometimes brought the dead home and took turns “sitting up with the dead.”
    I always assumed it was out of respect for the deceased but maybe —

    1. It has many times back in the day

  14. In New Orleans when somebody dies, they “wake him”. They mean, of course, that there’s going to be a visitation (wake) at the funeral home. I was startled the first time I heard that. Neighbor: “Sue’s father died and they’re gonna wake him tomorrow..” Me: “They’re gonna WHAT????”

  15. We brought our dead home up until the 70’s. But we sit up with them to keep flies off and vermin from bothering the body.

    1. This practice of sitting with the corpse a couple nights was practiced through the early 1970s here in north Alabama. At least one person had to stay up all night, and through the years, I’ve read all kinds of folklore about why. By the 1980s that had given way to leaving bodies at the funeral home.

  16. In olden days some people ran a string from inside the casket through a pipe that had a bell attached. If the dead awakens they ring the bell to alert the family.

    1. Hence the saying, “Saved by the bell.”

    2. Yes, I’ve heard this too. I forgot where and when, but it wasn’t a bad idea back in the day. Nowadays embalming fluids would finish you off, or you would wake up in a furnace.

    3. Also the term “working the graveyard shift”

    4. Also the phrase “dead ringer”

  17. I was always terrified as a child that I would be buried alive. My parents were born in the late 1800s. They were in their 50s when I was born an ‘sitting up with the dead’ was a common occurrence. The kids went with the parents that were sitting and they made pallets in the other rooms for the kids and I was always afraid.

  18. I talked with a 68 yr old woman just yesterday. She told me she had been admitted to Bryce Mental Hospital twice. Both times she said “you could her screams and moans coming from in the cemetery. She even witness a dead body out in the shed just laying on a table. Scared her to death. People buried before they are truly dead, you betcha.

  19. I can see how this would have happened back then. They didnt embomb them like they do now

  20. Odd as it may seem, there are still today RARE possibilities of someone NOT being dead even though pronounced dead.


    A body being cremated does not have to have embalming. WASTE of money, when cremation is the choice.

    I personally knew one young man that had been declared dead NOT ONCE, BUT TWICE in his life; years before he actually died. He was the spouse of my husband’s classmate and grew up one street over from me in Tuscaloosa, AL.

    I also recall my Dad telling us about one of his crewman that worked on his construction crew for the Alabama Gas Company. He was bad about drinking to passing out intoxication. One night he was out drinking and fell in a ditch. In those days you didnt have to be taken to a hospital first to be pronounced dead, then sent to mortuary. So when he was found, he appeared dead and was taken to funeral home, where he later regained consciousness.

    When he got to work next day and was relating what his experience to my Dad (his supervising boss) he said… “Mr. Charles, I jumped off that table and they chased me around it trying to get me back on it!”

    YES, TRUE STORY! LOL… they were probably just trying to put him back on the table to examine him and call a doctor. But it sure scared him bad enough to make him WANT to quit drinking. Whither he did or not is anybody’s guess.

    Another real story I recall hearing on local news, was the time a former well-known Commissioner in Alabama was declared dead… i think it also happened to him twice, before he really died in later life.


    Why waking up in a morgue isn’t quite as unusual as you’d think – Carla Valentine

    There are many reasons why what is seemingly someone’s last breath is just the first stage of a process that doesn’t always end in death.

    The feet of a body in a morgue with a tag around the toe….

    ‘Gruesome archaic tests for death, such as shoving needles beneath fingernails and slicing nostrils, may not even work.’

    Friday 14 November 2014 11.18 EST Last modified on Wednesday 22 February 2017 13.23 EST
    In Poland, a 91-year-old woman has shocked her family – and the public at large – by waking up in a morgue after being refrigerated having been declared dead. Despite 11 hours of cold storage, Janina Kolkiewicz was discovered to be alive and well after mortuary staff detected movements in her body bag. Speaking as an anatomical pathology technologist (or mortuary technician) I can thankfully say that has never happened to me when I’ve been on duty.

    But it does happen.

    In January this year a 24-year-old Kenyan man, Paul Mutora, was pronounced dead after swallowing insecticide; 15 hours later he woke up in a morgue, causing staff to “take to their heels, screaming”. In March, Walter Williams, a 78-year-old man, was found alive and literally kicking in a body bag at a funeral home in Mississippi. The discovery came as staff were preparing to embalm his body, so he was just spared the gruesome fate of having an artery sliced open and his blood replaced with formaldehyde to preserve his tissues – a process I’m certain some Hollywood stars will eventually adopt in order to stay youthful.

    Williams had been declared dead as he had “no pulse”, but it was just a few hours later that he began kicking in the embalming room, causing staff to immediately call an ambulance.

    So how does it happen? In Mutora’s case it was thought that the atropine he was given by medical staff to counteract the insecticide may have made him appear dead (it slows heart rate). With Williams, meanwhile, much has been made of the fact that the coroner who pronounced him dead, Dexter Howard, was an elected official who didn’t have a medical degree, as is the case in many US states. UK coroners may also have a medical or law degree, but the difference is they don’t have the power to pronounce people dead. That is left to medically trained staff – and for good reason.

    Even within the medical community there is debate over what really constitutes death, and it is seen less as a single event and more as a process. It involves several different mechanisms ceasing, not just one, which is why there can be ethical arguments around brain stem death – when the person is in fact deceased but their tissues can be artificially kept alive.

    When the heart, for whatever reason, stops beating, the tissues it services are deprived of both oxygen and glucose, and are subject to a build-up of toxic waste products. This gradually kills the cells. When enough of them die there is major organ failure and the body as a whole is said to be dead. The delicate cells of the brain are particularly susceptible to a lack of oxygen (anoxia) and they will usually begin to die in around four to six minutes.

    However, a reduction in temperature can extend this period considerably: the cold decreases the cells’ need for oxygen and glucose and they go into a type of hibernation state. Many examples of this preservation and recovery exist, from people drowning in icy water to becoming suffocated beneath an avalanche, or simply becoming unconscious and hypothermic until they are found and revived. Conversely, the cells of the skin, for example, can remain alive for 24 hours after the heart has stopped beating, although the idea that nails and hair continue to grow after death is myth.

    Now it is becoming clear how the unfortunate Polish woman was able to wake up after 11 hours in this hibernation state with no severe physical damage and nothing but a craving for hot tea and pancakes. The fact is, she is not a modern-day Lazarus who “came back from the dead”, as some headlines are screaming: she quite simply wasn’t dead in the first place. She probably did have a very weak pulse, and was unconscious owing to a medical issue.

    Some people have a condition called catalepsy, for example, a nervous disorder that replicates the stiff muscles of rigor mortis, slows breathing and decreases sensitivity to pain. This means gruesome archaic tests for death, such as shoving needles beneath fingernails and slicing nostrils, may not work on the cataleptic patient. (This condition was written about extensively by Edgar Allen Poe, who was terrified of being buried prematurely – a very real fear during the 19th century.)

    So people can be mistaken for dead, but it is very rare indeed – and for the most part our sophisticated medical tests and equipment ensure it doesn’t happen. And, as illustrated by the above cases, those unlucky people tend to wake up in mortuaries anyway, and certainly don’t reach the stage where they would be buried alive. But then again, we wouldn’t know about those unfortunate people, would we?

  21. Old-timers talk about this happening. Awful to imagine.

  22. Yep, my great grandpa almost got buried alive.

  23. The bell is also where the saying “a dead ringer” originated

  24. Yes and back in the early days I remember as a child men in the community would all meet at the cemetery take turners digging the grave sometimes it took all nite, before the next day of the funeral. And according to the signs, some times the dirt would be less or more for the grave according to the signs in the moon,

  25. After assisting an embalming once, I don’t see this happening ever. This can’t be anywhere near true unless someone is actually not embalming the dead.

    1. Well no they didn’t embalm at the time this happened and no it is not required now.

    2. They didn’t use to embalm. Later as embalming became the norm–people were still placed in coffins but in the parlors of their homes. They were embalmed and then taken to the home. I know this to be a fact. My Grandfather was embalmed and then still taken to his home. They weren’t worried that he was not dead. It had just become such a custom that it was still done.

    3. This was pre-embalming; but when I was a child the corpse was taken back home after being embalmed and people sat with it for a couple of nights. Visitation was at home during that time and the body was taken from home to the church for the funeral.

    4. Embalming is not required today but burial has to be done fairly soon after death for obvious reasons. It does cut down on funeral expenses.

  26. I remember my grandparents telling stories about sitting through the night with the family.

  27. Poe wrote about this…

  28. Some places in the North East a string is tied around the deceased finger and ran through a hole in the casket to a bell mounted over the grave. If the deceased was buried alive he could move his finger to ring the bell to notify anyone nearby that he was still alive. Wow, that article is a nightmare in the making, poor woman.

  29. My great grandfather use to tell of a woman buried alive in the early 1920s in Southern Cullman County. He said he was a teenager when it happened. The women had “died” and was buried. Family came into town and requested to see her. My great grandfather was one of the ones that dug her body up. When they opened the casket, she had scratched the inside of the casket until her nails had bleed. And had pulled all of her hair out.

    1. Amy Parker That’s scary.

    2. Amy Parker I was told that same story by my dad and his cousins 40 plus yrs ago

    3. Amy McDow Did they help dig the body up?

      As for similar stories, I would think that would be the standard reaction from anyone in a casket

    4. Amy McDow It scared me as a kid. Then I realized that it would happen back then. I would say, not now, but there was a story not to long ago, of a woman waking up the morgue.

  30. was called the Wake,was done all the time in my younger days in Alabama! usually,the whole community was involved! they brought foods and stayed overnight watching the body!

  31. I’ve heard of this. There is a saying or song something about a bell and string attached and buried with the corpse.

    1. Dan Hudson actual history. There was a option to be buried with a string tied to a bell above the ground.

    2. Dan Hudson called it a “ dead ringer “.

    3. James Adams thank you!!!

  32. Charli Sargent Goetz

  33. A friend of ours that was a Preacher and another Preacher went to Pray for this man that they had done declared dead he came back to life and lived several years after that .

  34. Anthony Allen, thought you would like this read

  35. This is my home town…Jacksonville, Alabama.

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