From Safety Coffins to the Walking Dead: A History of Fears About Death

Because it’s inevitable and yet unknowable, death holds a mystery for most of us. Thoughts about death sometimes manifest as fascination, and at other times are expressed as fear. The fear of death can sometimes lead to outrageous and often irrational ideas.

The fear of being buried alive is not as widespread as it once was, but before the advent of modern medicine, it was a very real fear. It wasn’t irrational, though, because sometimes it actually happened, especially during times of epidemic illnesses such as cholera.

To protect against this fate, some people invented safety devices that could be incorporated into the casket. These “safety coffins” had many features, including ladders, escape hatches and feeding tubes, and were sometimes equipped with a cord attached to a bell. This was meant to allow the person to signal the outside world if a rescue was necessary. Safety coffins still exist, with computer technology to alert someone to your plight, but they’re hardly necessary now that we are better able to determine whether someone is actually dead before interment.

These days, people are more likely to fear the undead. Another strange manifestation of a death-related fear, zombies are popular in modern culture. Why are we so fascinated? Experts think it could be because we have a fear of mass destruction and a fascination with survivalism. When we indulge in fantasies about zombies, it allows us to work through ethical concerns about how we might survive a large-scale disaster.

Putting fantasy and irrational fears aside, we must realize that death is just a natural part of life’s cycle. Talking about it can demystify it and make us better equipped to face it when the time comes. Still, it’s not easy. Few people are truly comfortable discussing death.

One thing that’s important to discuss is preplanning. Our loved ones may not want to think that a time will come when we will die, but because death is a reality for everyone, preplanning is a very good idea. When you preplan, you ensure that your wishes will be honored, and you relieve your loved ones of the responsibility of making difficult decisions during an already stressful time.

It may be an uncomfortable subject to broach, but it’s easier than you think to make a plan. Call Chapel of the Chimes at 510.379.5200 for more information, or visit our Plan Ahead page to request your free preplanning guide.

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