"The Premature Burial" is a short story by the American horror writer Edgar Allan Poe. It was first published in 1844 in The Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper. As its title suggests, the story plays on the fear of being buried alive, a common fear at the time of its first publication.
The tale's unnamed narrator suffers from a medical condition which causes him to appear to be dead. Consequently, he becomes terrified of the possibility of being buried alive and has vivid nightmares about it. He has alterations made to his family tomb to ensure that he will not suffocate inside his coffin. However, he continues to be frightened by the idea that he might die away from his home and his friends and be buried in an ordinary grave.
The story served as partial inspiration for the films The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1935), The Premature Burial (1962), The Haunting Fear (1991), the Czech film Lunacy (2005) and Nightmares from the Mind of Poe (2006).
The narrator begins the story by stating that writers of non-fiction are permitted to write about subjects that would be considered shocking or disgusting if they were presented as fiction. He excuses himself by pointing out that premature burial is a very real phenomenon. He gives five examples which occurred within living memory, in the United States, France, Austria and Britain, of people who were buried alive. In all but the first case, the unfortunate person was rescued from his or her grave while still alive. In one case, a woman who had been buried alive survived for at least another twenty years. The narrator is certain that many more such examples could be provided.
Although otherwise healthy, the narrator suffers from catalepsy. His condition can cause him to be completely motionless and give all appearances of being dead for long periods of time. Another symptom of his condition is that it takes him a long time to fully recover his senses each time that he awakes from sleep, the last thing to return to him always being his memory.
Understandably, the narrator develops a terrible fear of being buried alive. He also begins to dwell on thoughts of death and to dream about it. He describes one dream in which a mysterious figure commands him to arise from the grave. The mysterious figure causes all the graves in the world to open. The narrator sees that many more graves are occupied by people who are still alive than by people who are truly dead. The positions of many of those who are dead shows that they were still living when they were placed in their coffins.
As a result of the narrator's fears, he has modifications made to his family tomb, enabling him to escape from it easily, ensuring that there is sufficient light and air and place to store food and water. He has a special coffin made, designed to spring open easily and with soft warm padding. A hole in the coffin means that he would be able to summon his friends by ringing a bell, the rope of which would be next to his hand. He also makes his friends promise not to bury him until he shows signs of decomposing. Nevertheless, he remains scared by the thought that he might fall into a death-like state away from home and away from his friends who know about his catalepsy.
The narrator awakes from sleep one day, to find himself in total darkness. He tries to scream but finds that his jaw is tied shut. He notices that there is wood a few inches above his face. Concluding that he has been buried alive, he feels for the bell rope but notices that it is not there. He finds that the soft lining of his coffin is not there and can smell damp earth. Not yet able to remember what happened to him, he comes to the conclusion that he must have appeared to die away from home, in the company of strangers and been buried in an ordinary grave instead of in his family tomb. He tries again to scream, being successful on his second attempt.
Three men come in response to the narrator's scream. He remembers that he went on a hunting trip to Virginia with a friend. He is traveling up a river on a boat. He slept in a very small wooden berth, the soil which he could smell was the boat's cargo and he tied his own jaw shit before he went to sleep.
Nevertheless, the narrator continues to consider his experience to be more than just a nightmare and feels that it ultimately did him good. After the experience, he stops dwelling on the subject of death and enjoys life more. He also stops suffering from catalepsy, which he thinks may be as a result of the end of his morbid obsession.
- Other stories by Poe which deal with being buried alive: