Buried Alive! Families that Lived to Tell the Tale

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Zombies are synonymous with Halloween. Dead characters that escape the grave to haunt civilization seem like quite a far-fetched tale, but it’s closer to reality than you may think. Throughout history, there have been recorded cases of people being buried alive. The MyHeritage Research team dug deeper into these tales to learn more about the folklore, the stories, and the descendants of the individuals who were lucky enough to escape to tell the tale. 

Burial alive was a topic of interest in past plague laden generations, due to the fact that it actually happened! People fell victim to epidemics of plague and other diseases that sometimes made living people appear dead. At the same time, it was in the public’s best interest to bury those “dead” people as soon as possible and prevent the spread of disease. 

Before his death, George Washington requested that measures be taken to ensure that he was really dead before he was buried:  “I am just going! Have me decently buried, and do not let my body be put into the vault less than three days after I am dead.”  

Final Funeral

In 1915, a 30-year-old South Carolinian named Essie Dunbar suffered a fatal attack of epilepsy — or so everyone thought. After declaring her dead, doctors placed Dunbar’s body in a coffin and scheduled her funeral for the next day so that her sister, who was traveling from out of town, would be able to pay respects. When Essie’s sister arrived, she was too late to see her sister one last time, and she insisted that her sister be dug up, so that she could pay her final respects. When the coffin lid was opened, Essie sat up and smiled at all around her. She lived for another 47 years.

The announcement of her 1962 death was titled “Final Funeral is Held for South Carolina Woman.”

The Richland Beacon News, October 31, 2002

Reported in newspapers

Over the years, newspapers have reported cases of exhumed corpses that appear to have been accidentally buried alive. On February 21, 1885, The New York Times gave a disturbing account of one such case. The victim was a man from Buncombe County whose name was given as “Jenkins”. 

Another similar story was reported in The Times on January 18, 1886, the victim of this case is described simply as a girl named “Collins” from Ontario, Canada. 

Safety coffins

Indeed, premature burial was a great cause for concern to both the public and medical professionals, and so the invention of safety coffins came about. 

This example from September 1900 found in the historical record collection Inventors of historical patents on MyHeritage claims that the apparatus for preventing premature burial is intended to provide an improved apparatus for preventing the premature burial or persons […] and providing means of resuscitation and detections in case of returning to life […] comprising an air-tight inclosing receptacle, a coffin is said receptacle, an air supply pipe, and air exhaust pipe, auxiliary pipes connections to the air supply and exhaust pipes with the interior of the receptacle, and flexible pipes connecting the auxiliary pipes with the upper part of the coffin”.

Record from the Inventors of historical patents historical record collection on MyHeritage

Lived Once, Buried Twice

A folk story that spread across Europe describes the plight of Margorie McCall from Ireland. Her gravestone reads “Margorie McCall Lived Once, Buried Twice.” In 1695, Margorie caught a fever and, believed to be dead, her family held a wake and promptly buried her.

Soon after she was laid to rest, grave robbers, who regularly ransacked newly buried coffins, dug her up and attempted to steal a valuable ring she was still wearing. Unable to remove the ring from her finger, the robbers decided to cut off her finger. As they set to work, Marjorie woke up and scared them off. Margorie lived on after her ordeal, and she was later buried in what proved to be her final resting place.

Some historians doubt the veracity of Margorie’s tale because a death record for her death in 1705 hasn’t been located. Other opinions explain that local records may have not been recorded at that time due to a famine.

We were able to locate and contact MyHeritage user Joyce Ball, from Florida, who is a direct descendant of Margorie, 10 generations later. Joyce is a nurse, and ironically, works in the same profession that has changed drastically since her ancestor was buried alive, and would have prevented such a situation.

Joyce Ball

We talked to Joyce about her connection to Margorie: 

Joyce uncovered Margorie’s story while researching her maternal line, which hails from Northern Ireland. 

“I found the McCall line probably about two years ago when I did my genealogy, and I think I saw something about Margorie’s incident but knew vaguely about the details. Because I already knew about that phenomenon, as it’s something we learn about in nursing school, it wasn’t really a shock to me, that it could have happened. There were no family stories or anything about the McCall line.”

Joyce has an innate understanding of how a story like this could have occurred: “Back then, they didn’t have that luxury. And if you couldn’t hear the heartbeat or feel it, then you thought the person you know was dead when they might just be very, very ill, traumatized. And so things like that happened.”

As a nurse, and someone who has fought for patients’ lives, for Joyce, the story comes close to home.  

“Years ago, I had a patient and the patient’s heart stopped and we did everything… You keep moving, keep working, keep trying to bring them back. You don’t ever want to give up too soon. So that’s how it kind of relates to my personal life.”

Joyce wasn’t aware of the grave robbers’ involvement in the story, and she was shocked that somebody committing a crime accidentally saved Margorie’s life. Joyce found this to be inspirational and it reinforced her belief that every single person no matter how bad, has some contribution to others, and has value.

“They were doing something illegal, I would even say it’s immoral, but then they accidentally saved someone because if they hadn’t been in there trying to rob the grave, she may have died in the coffin… Everybody’s contribution matters, even if it’s something small, everybody’s contribution matters to the greater society as a small action can change something that might happen, and then it’s the butterfly effect. And you have a responsibility, you know, to your fellow human beings to do the best you know. So what’s supposed to happen happens”.

Although the tales of those buried alive seem unfathomable and beyond our imagination, historical research proves that the phenomenon did occur. For the descendants of Margorie McCall, and of others who survived to tell the tale, they must be grateful that in their case, their ancestors made it out in time, a luxury not afforded to most. 

Learn more about the tales of your ancestors and fill in details you may not know about them. Build a family tree on MyHeritage and order a MyHeritage DNA kit today!

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