Fortunately, tapophobia – the fear of being buried alive – is a phobia on the way out. But in Copenhagen back in the 18th century, tapophobia was a definite thing – and with good reason, as the tragic case of Gietrud Birgitte Bodenhoff illustrates.
‘It girl’ from the 18th century
In 1796, Gietrud was a girl with the world at her feet. She was a beautiful 17-year-old from a prominent family, engaged to marry Andreas Bodenhoff – son of one of the richest and most influential merchant families in all of Copenhagen. Home for the happy newlyweds was the impressive Boels Gård on Nyhavn 20 and everything seemed to be ready for a long and happy life together.
But just two years after their wedding, the accident hit and her young husband died. As a 19-year-old, Gietrud was now a widow – though one of the city’s richest. And her misfortune continued. Only a few years later, she suffered from a toothache, which developed into an infection that ended her life at an early age of 19. At the time, it was thought that the cause of death was the infection and possibly an overdose of the opium drops. she had taken to soothe the pain.
As a custom, the funeral took place a few days later, and the body of the beautiful young widow was laid to rest next to her husband in the family grave at Assistens Cemetery in Nørrebro. This could have been the end of her tragic story if it had not been for a speculative digger.
Revived and then neutralized
The night after the funeral, he decided that the grave of such a wealthy widow could well provide an extra source of income. Under cover of darkness, he opened the tomb, used his lantern to check for any valuables, and had his suspicions immediately confirmed. Gietrud had indeed been buried with his beautiful jewelry.
Ready to make some easy money, the engraver cum graver robber quickly took off his earrings and tucked them in his pocket. But grabbing her ring required the extra effort to cut the finger off. He found a place in the grave to place his lantern, took out his knife and began to cut it off when he got the shock of his life when Gietrud’s body began to scream in pain.
As one can imagine, the grave robber was completely unprepared for this turn and was instantly gripped by panic. At the same time, Gietrud, despite his bizarre situation, realized the need for swift action and began begging his attacker for help in returning to the land of the living. She promised him wealth, wealth and even the chance for a fresh start in life in America. But despite her generous offerings and increasingly desperate prayers, he killed her, sealed her grave, and walked as fast as his legs could carry him.
Urban legend confirmed
Had the engraver not been so affected by the events of that night, this strange tale would have remained in the grave of Gietrud. Yet throughout his life he would allude to what had happened, and on his deathbed he ended up confessing his cruel deed to a priest.
This gave rise to faint-hearted rumors that the tomb had been robbed and the young widow murdered in her coffin – rumors that lasted until the middle of the 20th century, when one of her descendants in 1953 finally received permission to dig up the grave and see if there was any truth in the story.
The tomb was duly opened, and to everyone’s surprise, Gietrud’s body was found lying in a distorted position. Her arms were outstretched next to her, and her legs were twisted under each other, as if she had been in a fierce battle – and there was no jewelry. Over 150 years later, rumors that the tragic young widow had been buried alive and then robbed and murdered in her grave were finally confirmed.
To the modern mind, the events that led to Gietrud’s funeral seem completely incomprehensible. As far back as the late 18th century, death itself was often surrounded by some degree of uncertainty. This was even more true if the person had been in a coma, as was probably the case with Gietrud, who had taken opium for pain relief. At the same time, the law said that burials should take place soon after death, which did not make it any less likely that someone could be sent to rest in a living state.
Therefore, at Gietrud’s death, tapophobia was a very real and common fear. In fact, the famous Danish fairy tale writer HC Andersen was so worried about being buried alive that every night he put a note on his bedside table that read: “I only seem to be dead”. His logic was that if he was found incapacitated the next day, his note would ensure that his doctors did a thorough check. Alfred Nobel, the Swedish chemist and engineer, was also so afraid of being buried alive that he left a clause in his will in which he demanded that the doctor who declared him dead cut his wrists before he could be buried. .
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, there were so many people sharing this fear of dying a second time in the tomb that the inventors spent time creating solutions. These so-called safety chests varied in design, but all had features that allowed the ‘body’ to attract attention. The most primitive had a tube that protruded above the ground so that the body could firstly breathe and secondly call for help. Other security chests were more sophisticated with casing, locks, keys and escape systems.
One variant even involved ropes attached to the body’s hands and feet, which were connected by bells in the chapel. If the body moved, the person would be rescued by the bell, so to speak. But as foolproof as it sounds, this design did not take into account that corpses often swell during the decomposition phase, which would cause the ropes to move and emit a false alarm.
Tafophobia, driven by cases like Gietruds’, eventually led to the introduction of death certificates in 1829. No one could be put to rest until such a document had been drawn up stating the cause of death. These certificates were first introduced in the capital of Copenhagen and later spread throughout Denmark. But this strangely life-saving piece of bureaucracy came too late for Gietrud, one of those poor souls who was unlucky enough to suffer the misfortune of dying twice.
Source: The Nordic Page