In suburban Vermont, in the West River neighbourhood of New Haven sits Evergreen Cemetery and the grave of Timothy Clark Smith.
In Life, Timothy Smith was a surgeon and physician, teacher, clerk and diplomat. After gaining his degree in New York in 1855, he used his medical skills in the Russian army for two years. After this, he was employed by the US consulate for several years, moving around the world and building a very impressive profile.
Yet despite all of his achievements and worldly experience, Smith harboured a horrific fear of being buried alive.
This fear, known as taphophobia, was not uncommon in the centuries past. Horror stories of presumed-dead clawing at their coffin lids were commonplace. With medicine, death and burial being relatively unregulated industries, misdiagnosing a coma or catalepsy as death was a very real threat. WeirdHistorian.com’ cites an instance from the July 22nd, 1890 edition of ‘The Undertaker’s Journal’ where a woman was buried alive –
‘The body of a woman, named Lavrinia Merli, a peasant, who was supposed to have died from hysterics, was placed in a vault on Thursday, 3rd July. On Saturday evening it was found that the woman had regained consciousness, had torn her grave-clothes in her struggles, had turned completely over in the coffin…’
Similarly, patents for safety coffins and elaborate systems of graveside pulleys and bells were ten-a-penny.
At this time, coffins with viewing windows were also put into production. While not overwhelmingly popular, coffins with viewing window above the deceased’s face were a prospect for mourners with enough cash to hand.
AmusingPlanet cites an instance in 1791 where British minister Robert Robinson had
‘a movable glass pane was inserted in his coffin, and the mausoleum had a door through which a watchman could go and inspect the body to make sure he was still dead.’
However, a viewing window in a coffin was not comfort enough for Smith. After all, the coffin itself would only be buried under several feet of earth. Instead of considering glass coffins and mausoleums, Smith had rather more practical ideas.
When Smith died on Halloween in 1893, his burial was not a simple affair. Prior to his death, Smith had designed his own elaborate resting place. His grave was dug at six feet deep and concreted across each wall, making it a clear, solid shaft. At the bottom was placed his coffin with a clear viewing window in place above his face. He had a breathing tube in place and in his hand rested a bell, giving him chance to signal for help should he awaken in his grave. Six foot above him, at cemetery ground level, a large concrete block was set. Within this, a 14” glass window was fixed in place. This gave visitors a clear look straight down into the slow-decaying face of Smith himself.
According to cemetery records, Smith does not rest alone. In a separate chamber, noticeably lacking a window, lies Smith’s wife. Her crypt is a darker affair, accessed only by a set of covered stairs leading into the crypt.
Smith’s fears were relievedly unfounded. His body remained where it lay and his bell stayed silent. The viewing window above, while providing pre-mortem reassurance to Smith, became little than a local curiosity.
As tempting as it may be to indulge one’s morbid curiosity and take a road trip to Evergreen cemetery, the passing years and climate has made Smith’s viewing window decidedly muggy, with beads of condensation reportedly hanging from the inside. Nonetheless, for the lovers of the curious and bizarre, Smith’s deathly fears and prevention measures maintain a certain tourist appeal!