Being Buried Alive

A convincing case that it's the worst way to go

Feb 22, 2012
Outside Magazine

Vivisepulturophobia    Photo: Chris Buck

VIVISEPULTUROPHOBIA—the fear of being buried alive—is more sophisticated, more existentially bleak, than claustrophobia. It nullifies the most basic human egocentrism—that the universe gives a damn about our whereabouts. Rest assured: You will never be found, certainly not in this lifetime.

As a 15-year-old, camping near the Dead Sea, I blithely explored a series of caves, some natural, some clandestine cisterns carved out by Israelite zealots 2,000 years ago. More than two decades later, my throat closes up in panic at the memory of crawling on my stomach through lightless, birth-canal-narrow sandstone tunnels.

A cave is all well and good, but it still gives you room to flail, scream, and claw with bloody fingers on the rock walls. How much worse to be immobilized? Hemmed in by rock or sand—or even ice. Apparently, glaciologists in Norway have come up with a novel way to gather data: They carve tunnels into the core of a glacier using hot water, then climb through this frigid warren—hundreds and hundreds of feet down—amassing information. They have to work fast; in short order, the enormous pressure of the glacial mass overhead reduces each capacious passage to walkway to crawl space to eventually nothing at all.

Pressure is the force that separates the men from the boys, phobiawise. Think about the cumulative weight of that sand, earth, ice, what have you. It only starts with suffocation: the slow, inexorable squeezing of air from your lungs. Take it to the next level by contemplating the uncomfortable constriction of the thorax, the rush of blood out to the extremities, your hands and feet swollen and full to bursting. And what is that sound? Why, it's the groan of your pelvis buckling under. See it all clearly as your eyes emerge Marty Feldman-like from their sockets, the lids pried open like the gaps in a fat man's shirt. And there you are, marking each torment as it comes. A martyrdom too gruesome even for the most devout saints.

But that's just me.