Urban Legend: People have been buried alive by mistake.
Origins: Live burials aren't unheard of. There are many known cases of possible live burials. In the first century, magician Simon Magus buried himself alive, expecting a miracle which never happened. A 13th-century author named Thomas a Kempis, wrote The Imitation of Christ, didn't become a saint because when they dug up his body for the ossuary they found scratch marks on the lid of his coffin and concluded that he was not reconciled to his fate. In the late 16th century, one of the pallbearers at the funeral of Matthew Wall tripped causing the others to drop the coffin which revived Wall. he went on to live several more years, dying in 1595.
A more recent case occurred in 1993. Sipho William Mdletshe, 24, was declared deceased after a traffic accident in Johannesburg, South Africa. He spent two days in a metal box before workers heard his cries and rescued him. However, his fiancée, who was also hurt in the crash, wasn't so convinced of his recovery. She believes he is a zombie who came back from the dead to haunt her.
Ok, so you get the idea, but is it common? These days, with embalming procedures, not really. Of course, embalming corpses isn't mandatory in the United States. Although, there have been deaths by embalming. In 1837, Cardinal Somaglia fell ill and passed out. He was thought to have died. They immediately began preparations for embalming. However, when the embalmer cut into the chest he could see the cardinal's heart still beating. The cardinal awoke and wisely pushed the knife away. Unfortunately, the chest incision killed him.
The most famous case is that of Anne Greene. On December 14, 1650, she was hanged for a felony and then, sent to the anatomy hall to be dissected. She woke up and lived for many years.
Since it is still possible to be buried alive, people have gone to great lengths to instill precautions. One method was the practice of 'waking' the dead. A person would sit with the deceased from the time of death until burial in case he 'wakes up'. This was mostly commonly done during times where numerous illnesses could cause a patient to slip into a comma.
Some people went as far as to put a clause in their wills specifying they wanted special tests (which included surgical incisions, the application of boiling hot liquids, touching red-hot irons to their flesh, and stabbing them through the heart) to verify their deaths.
The screams of a young Belgian girl who came out of a trance-like state as the earth fell on her coffin prompted Count Karnice-Karnicki, Chamberlain to the Czar and Doctor of the Law Faculty of the University of Louvain, to invent a coffin that allowed a person accidentally buried alive to summon help through a system of flags and bells. The hermetically-sealed coffin had a tube, about 3.5 inches in diameter, extending to a box on the surface. The tube was attached to a spring-loaded ball sitting on the corpse's chest. Any movement would release the spring, opening the box lid and admitting light and air into the coffin. To signal for help, a flag would spring up, a bell would ring for half an hour, and a lamp would burn after sunset. Similar "life-signaling" coffins were patented in the United States. In January of last year, I did a post about a man named Timothy Clark Smith who has a gravesite similar to that described above. To view pictures of this site go to the Vemonter website.
In December 1910, Evangelist Mary Baker Eddy died at her home in Boston. Her body was kept at the general receiving vault at Mount Auburn Cemetery in nearby Cambridge for several months (a monument was being constructed). Since she was a world renowned figure, a guard was hired to stay with the body until it was interred and the tomb sealed. A telephone was installed at the receiving vault for his use during that period. Rumors circulated that a functioning telephone was interred with her body. There was never a phone at the monument. A similar rumor was associated with another famous evangelist named Aimee Semple McPherson. Most likely, people confused her with Eddy.
What is worse than being buried alive accidentally? Being buried alive on purpose. In Roman times, vestal virgins were executed by live burial for breaking their vows of chastity. Monks and nuns who broke the same vow were also entombed. They were often walled into small niches and given a pittance of food and water. Then, the grim benediction Vade in Pacem (Depart in Peace).
Others were buried alive to serve the dead in the next life. In Africa, two slaves (a man and a woman) with interred with each dead Wadoe headman. The man was given a bill-hook to use to cut wood for fuel in the next life, and the woman cradled the dead chief's head in her lap.
In 1849, an observer of King Thien Tri of Cochin, China's funeral reported that he, along with rich and plentiful grave goods, was entombed with all of his childless wives, guaranteeing he'd be henpecked throughout eternity but would at least get his meals on time.
If you are worried about premature burial, you should consider reading an Australian pamphlet called "Short Reason of Cremation" (circulated at the turn of the century). The pamphlet contains 12 points for considering cremation. Pay close attention to number 10: Cremation eliminates all danger of being buried alive.