Prior to the era of modern medicine, many people suffered from taphophobia, the fear of being buried alive. This phobia peaked in the 18th and 19th centuries when epidemics of yellow fever and cholera commonly killed thousands and thousands of people. This fear was not totally unfounded. An Englishman, William Tebb, did a study of premature burials and found 219 cases of near live burial and 149 live burials in England. Often the cause of this terrifying event was the inability of doctors to tell the difference between a comma and a death. Numerous authors of that era wrote gruesome tales about being buried alive. Among them were Edgar Allen Poe who published The Premature Burial (1844), The Cask of Amontillado (1846) and The Fall of the House of Usher (1839.) They are all good reads if you enjoy horror stories. George Washington suffered from taphophobia and requested he not be buried until two days following his death.
To assuage this fear of being buried alive the safety coffin was invented. It is fitted with a device, often a bell that allowed the victim of a premature burial to pull a cord that rang the bell placed on the tomb allowing the grave keeper to come to the person’s rescue. Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick commissioned the first safety coffin for himself in 1792. Six years later a German priest, P. G. Pessler, suggested all coffins have bells. The popularity of safety coffins continues to grow. In 1822 Dr. Adolf Gutsmuth designed a coffin he was so confident in that he was buried alive in it a number of times to demonstrate its efficacy. Dr. Johann Taberger developed a safety coffin in 1829 that had bell strings attached to both arms and legs of the corpse.
In modern times Fabrizio Caselli designed a safety coffin with an emergency alarm, intercom, a light, breathing apparatus and a heart monitor in 1995.
While urban legend says phrases like “dead ringer”, “saved by the bell” and “graveyard shift” are due to the safety coffin, there is little actual evidence it is true. But it does make for a good story.