Buried Alive? Your Survival Time Depends On The Size Of Your Casket

By Kendra Pierre-Louis on November 4, 2013 9:48 AM EST

Tom Hodgkinson
Tom Hodgkinson

It's every claustrophobe's biggest fear - being buried alive. But have you ever wondered how long you'd survive if you were buried alive?

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It's a seemingly random questions given that one's odds of being buried alive, unless they hang with mobsters or have particularly lousy taste in significant others, are pretty low. However, before the rise of modern medicine taphophobia, or the fear of being buried alive, wasn't a totally irrational fear. The advent of heart monitors, EEG's, and even the now barely remarked upon, but once revolutionary, stethoscope has obscured the fact that it can be surprisingly difficult to tell if someone is dead or just temporarily comatose. Throughout history, stories of individuals with life signs so faint that they were mistaken for dead abound. In the book Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear, author Jan Bondeson tells the tale of London butcher Lawrence Cawthorn who, after rapidly falling ill in 1661, was hastily buried by his landlady in her eagerness to inherit his belongings. Visiting mourners at his tomb, however, were greeted by "a muffled shriek from the tomb" and by "frenzied clawing at the coffin walls." He was eventually disinterred, but it was too late: Cawthorn's lifeless body bore the distinct marks of his futile efforts to dig himself out of his early grave and of the asphyxiation that followed.

So how long could one live if they were buried alive? According to the calculations, by Alan R. Leff, the professor emeritus at University of Chicago, the average person, placed in a typical coffin would have roughly 5.5 hours of breathing time. Says Leff,

Let's say the average casket measures 84 by 28 by 23 inches, so its total volume is 54.096 cubic inches, or 886 liters. We'll use that as the internal volume too, to give you a few extra minutes of life. And the average volume of a human body is 66 liters. That leaves 820 liters of air, one-fifth of which (164 liters) is oxygen. If a trapped person consumes 0.5 liters of oxygen per minute, it would take almost 5 and a half hours before all the oxygen in the coffin was consumed.

Smaller people would occupy less volume in the coffin and breathe in less air so they'd have a bit more time, while bigger people occupy more space and breathe in more air leaving them less time. A bigger coffin would one more time and so would a meditation habit as Chinese construction worker Wang Jianxin illustrated fairly spectacularly in 2008. Jianxin was buried alive while digging a ditch but managed to survive for two hours with just the pocket of air trapped in his safety helmet thanks to his use of Buddhist meditation techniques to control his breathing.

Why not just claw one's way out? As Cawthorn's futile efforts illustrate, dirt is heavy. Six feet of dirt weighs roughly 2 ton per cubic yard, or roughly as much as a car. And, ones efforts would increase the rate at which coffin air was depleted - leaving the victim even less breathing time. Even if one did manage to escape the coffin, the dirt would fill in any gaps made, with a resulting experience quite like an avalanche: the dirt would compress one's rib cage making breathing difficult, while also filling in one's airways. Death would come sooner, not later.

What's the one bright spot?

The buildup of carbon dioxide would lead one to pass out prior to death.

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