On a Virginia mountaintop, a man and a woman are buried alive by a massive mushroom which induces a hallucinogenic trip then digests its victims. Sounds farfetched, but this actually happened, in an episode of the sci-fi TV show “The X-Files“.
The theme of being buried alive has a lively history across recent television shows and films. Uma Thurman is buried alive in Kill Bill Volume II, Quentin Tarantino’s ultra gory thriller about a murderous bride seeking revenge. The theme also appears in the two-part CSI episode Tarantino directed and in an episode of the crime scene show, Bones, in which two people are buried alive in a car. The world of fiction loves to play off the theme, but its occurrences in the real world are even stranger.
In ancient Rome, Vestal Virgins convicted of violating their vows of celibacy were buried alive by being sealed in a cave with a small amount of bread and water. The burial was a cruel test, if the woman was innocent then Vesta, goddess of the hearth, would swoop down and save her.
In the year 286, Saint Castulus, a convert to Christianity who sheltered other Christians in his home, was betrayed by an apostate named Torquatus. Fabian, the prefect of Rome, had him tortured then buried alive in a sand pit along the Via Labicana, a road that led southeast out of town. Another early Christian martyr, Saint Vitalis of Milan, was racked then buried alive in a pit of stones. And in 17th century feudal Russia, women who killed their husbands were buried alive in what was known as “the pit”. The last known case occurred in 1740.
That being buried alive is a means of torture, execution or something imposed during a war seems fitting, but on several occasions people have voluntarily requested to be buried alive.
In the early 19th century, Sadhu Haridas, an Indian yogi famous for his abilities to utilize kundalini, an unconscious force that lies coiled at the base of the spine, arranged to be buried alive in order to prove he could withstand the procedure. He was sealed in a bag then placed in a wooden box that was put in a vault which was buried in the earth. Crops were planted above and the location was guarded day and night. After ten months, Sadhu was dug up, and found to be very much alive. He said his only fear during his “wonderful sleep” was that he would be eaten by worms. Historians refute the event. Nevertheless, so many of his countrymen attempted the feat on their own, unsuccessfully, that the Indian government eventually made the act of being buried alive illegal.
And then of course there is Harry Houdini, the master magician who once escaped a pair of special handcuffs it had taken a British locksmith seven years to craft. Houdini was buried alive on two separate occasions. The first time was in 1917, in a pit of earth six feet deep, in Santa Ana, California. He panicked and tried to dig his way to the surface. When he finally reached it he fell unconscious and had to be pulled from the grave by assistants. Nine years later, he had himself sealed in a casket and submerged in the swimming pool of a New York hotel for an hour and a half. He claimed there was no trickery involved, he simply controlled his breathing.
Not all examples involve magicians. The Shilluk, a tribe in southern Sudan, believe that a natural death weakens the life force of their chiefs, thus threatening the survival of their people. To avoid this, leaders were buried alive in a large grave, usually close to their home. Godfrey Lienhardt, a 20th century British anthropologist who spent many years in Africa, initially reported on the practice, which was later described in the book, “Death, mourning, and burial: a cross-cultural reader“, by Antonius C.G.M. Robben:
“A platform of branches was raised in the pit on which the master would be lifted and to which a live ram was tied. The master began singing, and the clansmen joined in his joyous mood. Another platform was raised above the master’s head, and the grave was closed with cattle dung. Finally, a bull and a calf were sacrificed on top of the heap…”
The ritual, according to Lienhardt, ended with a feast.