Burial alive or premature burial was the practice of burying a living individual in a grave. There, they would be left to suffocate due to lack of air or else were provided with an airway and left to die of dehydration and the sheer terror of being buried alive.
Tacitus describes one of the earliest instances of living burial in his ‘Germania.’ Amongst the Germanic tribes, anyone convicted of a dishonorable or shameful act was tied to a wicker hurdle and then forced face down into the mud. Dirt was then heaped upon them until they were completely buried. Tacitus said this was because the Germans believed crime should be exposed, but infamy concealed.
Later generations took this premise very much to heart, as crimes punished by premature burial were indeed infamous. Those convicted of the rape of a virgin in the thirteenth century Bavaria under the Schwabenspiegel Law were buried alive. So were those guilty of Infanticide. The Berlinisches Stadtbuch records that between 1412 and 1447, ten women were buried alive for this crime.
Lawyer and travel writer Eduard Osenbruggen, in his History of Germany, described the demise of one such woman in Ensisheim in 1570. The woman was placed in the grave between two layers of thorns. A bowl was placed over her face, fitted with a reed so that she could breathe once buried. Then, the executioner jumped on her torso three times before covering her with earth.
However, elsewhere in Europe, women guilty of not so outrageous crimes risked premature burial. In fourteenth-century Denmark, Queen Margaret I decreed adulterous women should be buried alive. In Augsburg, Germany in 1505, a 13-year-old girl and a female cook convicted of murdering their master were buried alive under the gallows where their male accomplice, a 12-year-old boy had been beheaded for the same crime. Nuremberg in Germany also punished certain kinds of theft with premature burial- until, in 1515, this was deemed too extreme a penalty and it was replaced in the statutes by drowning.
Heretics also risked being buried alive in a Europe torn by religious schism. In 1597, an Anabaptist heretic called Anna Utenhoven was buried alive at Vilvoorde in Belgium after refusing to recant her beliefs. Utenhoven was buried standing up. As the grave filled, she was given further time to recant, but she declined. When only her head remained, she tried one last time. After he failed, Utenhoven was completely buried alive. Her death caused such unrest that the penalty for heresy was changed to fines or deportation.