CoffinThis blog draws on Kent & Medway stories and information to illustrate why people prior to the 20th Century were justified in being concerned about being buried alive or having their body stolen. It includes an account of a Rochester woman who it is claimed was prematurely buried and ‘awoke’ in her coffin, a Cuxton women who made elaborate arrangements to avoid being buried alive, and a probably fictional story of a woman who died ‘walled-up’ at Ightham Mote, near Sevenoaks – a little bit of Kent and Chatham body-snatching is also thrown in!


Taphophobia is the fear of being buried alive. The term phobia is used to define an irrational fear – but I’m not so sure, in years gone by, that the fear of being prematurely buried was entirely irrational!

Determining Death

Recovery of the Apparently DeadClick on image to view document – Welcome Museum

Determining death was and remains difficult – technically and philosophically. In the distant past when there was doubt about whether death had occurred painful tests could be used. These apparently included cutting the soles of the feet with razors, and pushing long needles under the toe nails (Buried Alive, Jan Bondeson, 2001, p86). One account I read even suggested injecting strychnine – Im not sure if this was to resuscitate or to ensure the patient’ was dead !

With the increasing use of science in medicine more sophisticated tests and subtle observations were used to determine if someone was dead. These however were not entirely reliable. Generally, the absence of lung or heart functioning was taken as a sign of death – but this was not particularly easy to detect. Until the stethoscope was invented in 1816 a feather or perhaps a mirror was used to detect the presence of breath. (For more on the evolution of scientific medicine visit my blog on William Harvey.) 

A Gravesend surgeon, Charles Kite who was also a Member of the Corporation of Surgeons in London, wrote in 1788, an award winning essay on the “Recovery of the Apparently Dead”. He described a number of presentations that he believed could erroneously indicate that death had occurred.

Determining death was clearly not always easy. This, taken with the practice of burying bodies as soon as possible for health reasons, increased the risk of someone being prematurely buried.

This risk was recognised by some medical professionals – but not all. Some advocated death-hospitals / waiting mortuaries where bodies could be stored until putrefaction had set in and thereby confirming death (Kent & Sussex Courier – 26 Sept. 1913). {These had been proposed before this date.} In London mortuaries were required to hold onto bodies for five days unless they presented a threat to public health. Others advocated cremation as a means to avoid premature burial! (e.g. Margate Mercury, Spring 202, p52. Other members of the medical profession denied that premature burial could happen if certified by a competent practitioner.

The Public also shared the Doctor’s Concerns

There appears to have been many reports in the press of people who avoided being prematurely buried as at the Death headlines‘last-minute’ they showed signs of life. The nearby image is taken from Premature burial and how it may be prevented”, William Tebb FRGS and Edward Vollum MD, 1896. (This book is a good read if you like horror – except of course this is not a work of fiction.)

Two Premature Burials Avoided

Tebbs & Vollum cite two examples in Kent where it was wrongly presumed that death had occurred – both within the same family – the Scotts of Scotts Hall, Smeet, Kent (Memorials of the Family of Scott, of Scotts Hall, in the County of Kent, with an Appendix of Illustrative Documents,” by James Benat Scott, F. S. A., London, 1876, page 225). 

1). Robert Scott married Priscilla Honywood around 1610. Whilst possibly honeymooning Robert fell sick and was given up as dead. His pillows were removed, curtains drawn and the room closed up, and arrangements commenced for his funeral to be held at Scott Hall. Two servants that night, who were sitting with the ‘body’, must have heard something that made them question whether Robert was dead, and decided to check. They “hallooed in his ear and laid a feather to his nostril” – which indicated a breath. They summoned help and with warm clothes and rubbing Robert was restored to life; he went on to live until he was 72 and to have nine children.

2). One of the children of Robert and Priscilla was given up as dead at birth. The baby was put to one side whilst the women attended Priscilla who was very sick and at risk of dying following the delivery.  Once things had settled an older women took the newborn downstairs and using unspecified means brought the baby to life. The other women disbelieved what she claimed until the baby was returned to the mother’s chamber.

In both these cases there was a very real risk of a premature burial – should they have not died ‘for want of ‘medical attention’ before their funeral.

Clearly there would have also been many cases where ‘signs of life’ were missed which could have led to someone being prematurely buried. How high or low the risk might have been, statistically, is of no matter as no one would want to be part of this ‘minority’ – no matter how small it might be!

Premature Burial Sceptics

Not everyone seems to have been convinced that premature burials happened, or that it was a good idea to delay burial of a body until putrefaction had set in.

It seems though that it was accepted that exhumed bodies had moved within their coffin and that shrouds had been torn. A report in the Gravesend Reporter, 4 Dec. 1869 stated that this could be due to the generation of gases during the decomposition of the body. The article concluded that despite this explanation one could not rule out premature burial.

In 1896 the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial was formed. Its aims were to counter the view that premature burial did not occur, and to establish means by which they could be prevented by requiring certification of death and the wider use of waiting-mortuaries / chapels in churchyards (Premature Burial and how it may be prevented,1896, William Tebb and Col. Dr. Edward Vollum.) In 1898 the association reported that more than 11,000 were buried each year without medical certification (Banbury Advertiser – 21 July 1898).

The medical profession was equivocal over whether premature burials could or had occurred. Through theLancet they said that they were not aware of any authenticated case of a body pronounced dead by a “competent and honest examiner having ‘returned to life”” (The Illustrated London News, 11 Feb. 1905). {Does this not leave open the possibility of it occurring if no medical examination took place or the examiner was incompetent? Perhaps it shows a reluctance of doctors to recognise when someone was actually dead? If so, this could be a dangerous arrogance.}

One formidable campaigner and orator who wished to highlight the perils of premature burials was Miss Emillie (Lizzy) Lind-af-Hageby from Sweden. She undertook a one-woman campaign which included a self-funded lecture tour. She was not always well received. At Margate she was heckled at length by a young man who denied that premature burials had occurred, and a townsman of Margate complained that the “horrid pamphlet” she had delivered to his home had upset his children and servants (Buried Alive, Jan Bondeson, 2001, p196/197). {In 1909 Miss Lind-af-Hageby gave up this cause and more successfully concentrated on campaigning against vivisection, for which she is most known, and women’s rights.}

Although we have more sophisticated tests for life today we still read of accounts of mortuary technicians spotting signs of life in someone for whom a death certificate had been issued. In 1974 the Birmingham Coroner heard disturbing evidence of Michael McEldowney showing signs of life whilst his kidneys were being removed for a transplant (Aberdeen Evening Express, 7 March 1974).

So, if we can get it wrong today think how much easier it would have been to have got it wrong in the past!?

Phobic or ‘Realist’?

As can been seen from the above there was a possibility of someone one being prematurely buried. Whether they came round in their coffin is harder to determine but if you’re not dead it has to be a possibility.

The fear of premature burial was not just within the province of the poorly educated. To prevent his premature burial George Washington (1799) stated that he wanted his seemingly dead body laid out for three day; Hans Christian Anderson (1875) and Alfred Nobel (1896) both wanted their veins opened when they appeared to have died. The story of the composer Frederik Chopin (1849) wanting his heart returned to his homeland of Poland and his body interred in Paris, has been presented as an act of patriotism, but having his heart removed was his way of ensuring that he was dead before he was buried (“Chopin’s Gravest Fear”).

Medway Examples and Concerns

Joan Bridges (1646) of Rochester – prematurely buried or murdered by immurement?

 Joan Bridges lived as a servant with her married sister in Rochester, and drank heavily in the ale houses on weekends and the sabbath alike – much to the disapproval of her immediate family. The following is an account of how one day’s heavy drinking led to her allegedly being prematurely buried in the churchyard of an unnamed church at Rochester.

The following is a composite of the accounts of Joan’s burial  as contained in the PhD dissertation of Jennifer Ingles

Click image for link to British Library

Wilson, “Reading Ambiguous Bodies”, 2018) , and the MA dissertation of Nichole Salomone. “Dead and Buried… For Now”, 2018). Both student-authors drew on a  pamphlet titled “A Strange and Wonderfull Relation of the Burying Alive of Joan Bridgesheld by the British Library.

It was on a Sunday in 1642 that Joan and her friends who enjoyed spending time in tippling houses, visited an unnamed alehouse in Rochester. Here they “spent the ‘Sermon Time’ in drinking and merriment”.

That evening Joan returned to her sister’s home at Rochester. Being the worse for drink she was advised to go to her bed.

The next morning, Joan in a state of comatose was discovered in her room. Despite vigorous efforts apparently being made it was not possible to rouse her. Although others reported having seen Joan showing signs of life, her sister + ?brother / brother-in-law? decided that she had died. Rather than waiting the recommended time before interring a body Joan’s family proceeded to have her buried. (K L Peterson, “Popular Medicine, Hysterical Disease, and Social Controversy in Shakespeare’s England”, 2016, p79.)

Shortly after the burial a man passing Joan’s grave saw two dogs digging into it. He thought he heard a noise from the grave, paused, and on not hearing it again, walked on – only to hear it again. He reported the occurrence to Joan’s family who were apparently disinterested – that though was not the case for some townswomen who raised the money to have Joan’s body exhumed – presumably not immediately!?

To everyone’s horror when the coffin was opened there was evidence that Joan had been prematurely buried. The cloth that had been placed over her face had been ripped off, and her nose and cheeks were beaten flat. The string that had tied her toes together had torn the skin from the bone. “Her hands which before were instruments to feed the body, had for want of elbow-room became her executioners, ripping open her very bowels; her left hand sticking into her belly, and her right hand having razed the skin and flesh from her side.

It is recorded that the condition of the exhumed body of Joan was witnessed by 500 persons. Although some people thought that Joan had been beaten before burial most felt that the damage had occurred whilst encased in her coffin. Acertificate of truthwas affirmed by the Lord Mayor of London and various members of the Houses of Parliament was issued.

One has to question how someone could be so drunk that they remained comatose for over 24 hours. It is possible that Joan did not just consume alcohol. There were poppy-seed beverages available from the 16th century – better known now as laudanum. A mixture of alcohol and opium could surely have had a debilitating affect!

I was also left with a disquieting feeling that Joan may have been murdered. Clearly she was a problem for her sister – could that explain why advice that Joan was showing signs of life were ignored, and the burial was hastily arranged?}

It may be worthy to note that Tebbs & Vollum did not cite this burial in their book on premature burials; it would have been highly relevant and would have supported their case – if they believed it to be true. Perhaps one needs to be mindful that pamphlet writers, rather like the tabloids today, could have relished in providing horrific details in pursuit of extra sales, or may be highly moralistic wanting to highlight the horrors that could beset those who do not respect the Sabbath.

However, regardless of the truth behind the account of Joan Bridge’s apparent premature burial, the telling and retelling of the story would have undoubtedly troubled those who carried the fear of something similar happening to them. One such person could have been Margaret Coosons who is now buried in the churchyard of St Michael and All Angels at Cuxton Kent.

Margaret Coosens – Taphaphobic or Cautious Realist?

Margaret Coosens, who died 4 August 1783, had a morbid fear of being prematurely buried and made elaborate arrangements through her will to avoid this happening to her.

In her will which she signed 6 July 1783, Margaret expressed her fear of being buried when in fact she was in a trance and not dead. The term trance was previously used to describe someone who was in a sleep from which they could not be roused – rather like that possibly experienced by Joan Bridges?

As Margaret died within a few weeks of signing her will, it could be assumed that she was seriously unwell at the time it was made. As a consequence, she may well have experienced or been told about having periods of deep sleep brought on by fatigue from her illness, and possibly the effect of laudanum that she may have been taking to alleviate pain. Her fear of a “trance” being interpreted as her death may not therefore have been fanciful.

The following is based on an extract of Margaret Coosens’s will that was published in the Gravesend Reporter, 9 April 1887.

Margaret hoped that the vicar of St Michael and All Angels at Cuxton, would allow a closet to be constructed in his church in which her coffin would be placed. With this in mind she directed that her body should not be laid out until 24 hours had elapsed following her presumed death. If the vicar refused her request for a closet to be built to contain her coffin, she directed that her body should be kept for one month before being buried.

Cuxton Church
St Michael and All Angels at Cuxton, Kent

To ‘encourage’ the vicar to comply with her request she left £80 [equivalent of around £12,330 today] to the parish for the poor, but conditional on his compliance. If he so agreed Margaret only required her body to be kept for two weeks before being interred in the specially constructed closet – from which she could escape should she have been wrongly presumed to have died.

Her requirements were:

1). That she should be buried in linen with her gold wires in her ears.

2). Her body was to be placed in a plain mahogany coffin that was lined with thick lead.

3). A diamond shape window was to be cut in the lid of the coffin and glazed with a pane of glass – not a bull’s eye pane of glass.

4), The lid of the coffin was not to be nailed closed.

5) The coffin was to be placed on trestles close to her husband’s remains, and at least 4ft off the ground.

7). All should be enclosed with wainscotting (wooden panels) that were to be at least 6ft high.

8). A doorway was to be made into the enclosure. It was to be fitted with a glass panel obscured with a green silk curtain.

9). The door was to be secured with a strong lock – a key for which is to be left inside.

Margaret also gave instructions as to how the coffin was to be conveyed to Cuxton from her home at Walcot-place, Lambeth. She instructed that the cortege, comprised of a hearse drawn by six horses, and coach drawn by four horses, should depart for Cuxton at 4am.

Why Specify a Strong Lock?

I am speculating here, as I would assume that a good lock would have been sufficient. Could Margaret have been concerned that her body could be taken by Resurrectionists / Body Snatchers? We know there were doctors in Rochester – and elsewhere – who wanted to advance their knowledge of anatomy by dissection – see blog “Body of executed boy given to Rochester surgeons”. I also suspect that body-snatchers would have preferred to take a body that didn’t involve digging in a graveyard. {There are reports of bodies being stolen from houses where they laid prior to burial.}

Body Snatchers or Resurrectionists were active in Kent

Although there was a local ‘demand’ for bodies the demand was much higher in the cities where there were more doctors. It seems that London gangs of resurrectionists may have made forays into Kent – perhaps acting on local intelligence, and where graveyard security was perhaps less than in London. The demand and trade for fresh bodies was high. In the local press it was reported that 60 bodies had been discovered in Liverpool ready for shipping to Edinburgh – a place at the forefront of medical advances (Canterbury Journal – 17 Oct. 1826).

Local Press Accounts

Although the following accounts post-date Margaret’s death, body snatching was a ‘recognised’ risk during the 18th century and it difficult to imagine that the widow of a JP would have been unaware of the practice.

1798 – The Sexton of Maidstone noticed that violets and primroses were strewed about the place where W Jones, the convict executed upon Penenden Heath, was interred. On examining the grave he found the coffin empty and the lid turned inside out. At Aylesford, the body of Barnabas Egan, another convict, had been taken out of his grave (Hampshire Chronicle – 14 April 1798).

1818 – Two human heads were found in a basket near the half-way house between Rochester and Gravesend. A gentleman of the Medical Staff at Fort Pitt was called to examine the heads. He identified them as belonging to two soldiers who had recently died at the hospital. This caused the graves of the two men at Chatham to be opened. It was discovered that the nails of the coffins had been drawn and the head board taken out, and replaced. When the coffins were opened it was found that the bodies had been decapitated.

It was assumed that Resurrectionists from London, acting on local intelligence were the perpetrators of this disgusting and unnatural transaction”. Helpfully the journalist advised the readers that bodies quickly putrefy in June rendering them unsalable. Heads however have an added-value. Although anatomists are prepared to pay half a guinea for a head they did not require the teeth. Body-snatchers could therefore make extra money by extracting the teeth and selling them to dentists for three shillings each, for implantation into their patients. The front teeth had been removed from the recovered heads of the two soldiers. The heads were returned to the soldiers graves (Canterbury Journal – 19 June 1818).

Also in 1818, the Beckenham Parish Accounts record an entry for 11 shillings for two men to watch over the graveyard for two nights. The watchers hid in the beams of the old Lych Gate. The source gives details of other possible body-snatching episodes associated with this church (“The Beckenham Resurrectionists”) Click on link for more – checked 22 April 2021).

1841 – The coffin plate of a woman buried at Offham, near Maidstone, was found in a field near Darenth. This led to speculation that her body had been disinterred by Resurrectionists (Canterbury Journal, 7 Aug 1841). {No reference has been found that this was confirmed.}

Acceptance that Margaret Coosens was Dead!

By 1868, with no sign of Margaret having left her closet, it was accepted that she was dead. It was therefore decided that her coffin should be removed from inside the church and buried in the churchyard.

In a letter to the Rochester, Chatham & Gillingham Journal, 20 Oct 1883, the correspondent confirmed that Margaret’s coffin had been buried in the churchyard. It was also reported that the closet had been located in the southwest corner of the church, and was removed when restoration work, that included the entire rebuilding of the south aisle, was undertaken. {In 2015 the Rev. Roger Knight advised me that the location of Margaret’s grave is no longer known.}

Don’t automatically assume books and the internet have it right

A number of accounts found on the internet say that the closet in which Margaret Coosens’s body was placed was in the shape of a pyramid, and that she was interred wearing a red dress. The only source I’ve found for this description is in The Kent Village Book” by Alan Bignell , but it’s not referenced and is at variance with Margaret’s will. Derek Church in Cuxton, A Kentish Village, 1976, p23, reports that the coffin was lined with scarlet satin but makes no reference to a dress. The Wainscotting used to make the closet for Margaret’s coffin could have been organised as a pyramid but that would have been more complex to construct than the ‘boxed-off’ area as suggested in Margaret’s will.

The immured Dame Dorothy Selby? Fact or Fiction – or perhaps a ‘Jape’

In 1872 rumours circulated that workmen working at Ightham Mote, had discovered the body of a woman sitting in a chair walled into a cupboard.. The speculation was that the skeleton was that of Dame Dorothy Selby, a former Lady in Waiting to Elizabeth I. The account given was that she had learnt of the plans in 1605 to kill James I by blowing up the House of Parliament – The Gunpowder Plot. {Parts of her family were Catholic.}

As punishment for warning of the plot it is said that she was walled up in a small room/closet.

There are many problems associated with this story regardless as to whether remains were found and if they were, were they of Dame Dorothy? It is perhaps worthy to note that the National Trust, that owns Ightham Mote, no longer makes reference to this story.  There is some speculation on the internet that the rumour of the finding of the body started on Boxing Day – if correct, could the rumour have started as a ‘prank’ as part of the mumming festivities?. Histories written closer to the time of the alleged ‘finding’ discuss Dame Selby’s possible involvement in revealing details of the Gunpowder Plot, but no mention of any reprisals e.g. Maidstone Journal, 9 May 1901, or the finding of a body.

For those who enjoy historical fiction “Green Darkness” by Amya Seton is based on Ightham Mote and was probably part inspired by the ‘rumour’ of the immurement of Dame Dorothy.

Final Thoughts – a Case for Organ Donation?

Little can be concluded from the above other than death was a painful and scary prospect in the past. There was a risk of being buried alive, the possibility of which was sustained by many news reports, and there was prospect of being dug-up by the Resurrectionists. The later of the risks is greatly diminished today – but what about being buried alive or coming around in the morgue?

We still read about the complexity of determining whether someone in a vegetive state is alive, and we hear of people coming out of such a state giving accounts of having been able to hear everything being said by people around them.

Based on past and more recent history I’m inclined to think that it maybe unfair to regard Margaret Coossenas being taphophobic – she may well have been a realist and had the means to do something about it.

For me the most effective and beneficial way to avoid ‘premature’ interment would be to donate ones organs!

Geoff Ettridge aka Geoff Rambler

10 May 2021