"Mother, I Can Feel the Soil Falling Over My Head"
I hummed the Smiths' "I Know It's Over" as the dirt collapsed percussively all around me. Due to the coffin floor's slight belling beneath my unsupported weight, the box's lipped lid didn't quite seal correctly—the slight light leaks forcing me to cover my face as the dirt began to shower inside. My heart raced with roller-coaster-strength giddiness as the booming sound surrounded me for what seemed like an eternity, until finally it was all over. I had actually been buried alive.
A Sealing of Fate
I was 13 when I first saw the American version of The Vanishing—a celebrated Dutch horror film callously re-envisioned as a schlocky Hollywood suspense thriller starring Sandra Bullock, Jeff Bridges, and Kiefer Sutherland. Even at 13, I was painfully aware of the film's general mediocrity—but filmed amongst the palatable dampness that clouded so much of my adolescence in the Pacific Northwest, it immersed me until its consciousness-branding climax: Sutherland waking in absolute darkness after unwittingly volunteering to be buried alive. It was the first time I can remember seeing a film capture the dark, moist topography of my youth, the first time that I heard the word chloroform, and the first time I had seen the dimly lit interior of a closed coffin. Most importantly, it was the first time I had ever considered the terror of being buried alive.
From that point on, being buried alive became not so much a phobia for me as a powerful fascination—the shark in the bathtub of my young-adult life that seemed forever possible, however distant. To clarify, the terror/obsession I associate with a living burial is not that of an accidental death at the hands of some inattentive medical practitioner or mortician—a surprisingly common phobia if a quick Google search can be believed. No, mine is a specific fascination with the willful, malevolent burial—the kind wherein some sadistic mastermind has thoughtfully and cheerfully composed the limited capacity in which you will be allowed to maintain your humanity: the flashlight with the gradually dying batteries, the narrow air tube, and the dwindling water supply. As years have passed, the line between fascination and fantasy inevitably began to slowly dissolve—until one day I mentioned it to my editor in passing. A few weeks later it was a startling reality—the details were arranged, and all I had to do was get in the box.
The Final Punchline
In the weeks that anticipated my ceremonial descent, my gleeful anticipation was largely met with disbelief, fear, and a reasonably stupefied curiosity as to what could possibly possess me to conceive of such a pointless endeavor. My canned answer—that it would make a good story for this paper—seemed to placate most people, but did little to explain away the self-satisfaction with which I so happily approached the task. The truth of the matter was that it was difficult for me to concisely articulate the conflicted laundry list of motivations that drew me to pursue my own living burial. Part morbid curiosity, part narcissistic indulgence, I think the least complicated explanation probably lies in a near lifelong obsession with the trivialization of death—a need to conquer the prospect of my imminent mortality with an absurdly active nonchalance.
Truth be told, the burial was the second elaborate funeral I've held for myself in adult life: the first an open casket memorial/rock show—complete with pre-recorded video valedictions between sets—that heralded my exit to Portland from my previous home in Seattle. In a sense, the burial would be a completion of that service—finally returning my body to its earthly home forever. Or at least for a few hours.
Making the Dead
As it happened, the planning stages of the burial began to align themselves serendipitously with the week of my 25th birthday—as I could think of no better way to face the dread of my first quarter century than from under six feet of dirt, it was decided that we would shoot for October 13 on the nose. As the only Mercury staff member seemingly qualified to hammer a nail into a piece of wood, Senior Account Executive Rob Thompson was drafted to construct my coffin—a surprisingly spacious seven-by-three-by-three-foot tomb constructed primarily of plywood, and described by one coworker as the "size of a Japanese condo." After some talk of attempting to acquire a medical-grade oxygen tank, we settled on a slightly more economical (and far more aesthetically effective) breathing solution: a PVC pipe extending some seven feet into the air, and shaped to form a cross.
Phil Busse was put in charge of scouting the plot of land—a backyard in Northeast Portland, and supervising the backhoe that would dig my grave the day before the burial. Turns out burying yourself alive is a surprisingly cut-and-dry process. Who knew, right? Sure, my employer's safety precautions (walkie-talkies, breathing holes, a coffin big enough aerobicize in, etc.) had begun to neuter some of the more dangerous facets one might encounter were they actually forced into a living burial, but I had to admire the swiftness with which they allowed me to live the dream.
As the date of the burial grew ever closer, my friends and loved ones began to express their reservations about the impending funeral in a variety of ways: anxiety, grief, denial, and most prominently, ridicule. Strangely, the most common fears all seemed to incorporate some variation of frantic, animalistic clawing—either at the roof of my coffin, or at my own person. As I saw it, there were only a few practical possibilities that could cause my demise: Number one was the collapse of my coffin under the weight above me—a fate to whom I foolishly trusted a coffin-maker who I later realized was present at neither the burial nor the subsequent exhumation. The second and considerably more probable risk was one of suffocation: lying in a poorly ventilated box that's primary oxygen source was designed with little to no regard for the properties of gravity, it was likely that I would at the very least experience some carbon monoxide poisoning, which in extreme cases typically results in a loss of consciousness and possibly convulsions—the sort of thing that makes it difficult to alert the hopelessly unreliable coworkers who were to serve as my only bridge between the living and the dead. I mean, what's to worry about?
Digging My Own Grave. No, Really.
Following a cross-town trip in the Mercury distribution van during which my coffin hung precariously out the back of the vehicle's open doors, my pallbearers and I came upon the machine-made open grave just after four o'clock in the afternoon. As it was evident that we had underestimated the necessary width of hole that would accommodate my subterranean condominium, the more physically equipped among us took quickly to the dirt with shovels, slowly clearing the walls of my resting place as dusk began its gradual descent. At first I vainly batted dirt about, passively feigning assistance, but despite the fact that it made for a brilliant visual pun, I just couldn't bring myself to really dig in; partly because it would put the (ahem) nail in the (cough) coffin of these already somewhat dulled circumstances, and partly because I was wearing my only three-piece suit—and that hardly seemed appropriate. After over nearly an hour of labor, the deepest edges of the grave's walls were still just slightly too narrow—but as we were running out of daylight, we decided to move forward in spite of the foot-deep pocket of space below the coffin's plywood bottom.
As I prepared the small package of essentials I would take with me to the grave (one bottle of water, one useless Batman walkie-talkie, one piss-colored bottle of Powerade, one mummified cat, one digital camera, one iPod—which was sort of cheating), the small group of onlookers milling about began to notice a mounting number of bad omens shrouding our quaint, alley-side crypt. But no matter—my fate was about to be sealed. I was entering the ground.
It all seemed giddy enough, burying a willing colleague on a late afternoon. Already we felt lucky to have chanced upon a day without rain, though it turns out nature had a different way of reminding us that we were about to perform an abomination of her customs.
Of course, the first protests came from the sky. From the time we arrived at the burial plot, and throughout the hours we stayed there, the air around us echoed with screeching crows, scolding as they circled, streaking above the trees. These were quickly joined by the cats. Sleek black streaks whipped across the yard, while other soft shadows slunk coolly through the alley adjacent to the gravesite. Neither particularly curious nor skittish, the felines, each one black, simply hovered in and out of our vicinity, watching.
But these fauna were mere precursors to the worst and most hideous of cautionary omens sent to us from the animal kingdom. As the time approached to seal up Zac's coffin, a piteous soul appeared on the outskirts of the yard. An infant possum, not much bigger than the palm of one's hand, had stumbled upon the edge of the grave, where it shivered and limped, hissing like the zombie it appeared to be.
When approached, Zombie Possum's wheezy hiss intensified, though whatever threat it could have mustered was offset by it falling over, clearly only half alive. Unsure of what, if anything, could be done to salvage its pathetic life, I immediately began dialing number after number, attempting to contact an agency that might be willing to take it in. But thanks to budget cuts, the organizations could only afford to care about animals until 5 pm on weekdays, and machine after machine told me to call the police—a prospect that did not particularly jive with the occasion.
Hamstrung, we continued our business as Zombie Possum shambled around our perimeter, periodically slumping over, as we debated euthanizing it with a shovel. It should also be noted that upon its arrival, Zombie Possum polarized our group by gender, with all the males shrugging and continuing to labor about the grave while the females fretted over Zombie Possum, who was in graver danger, we thought, than Zac.
Though rather homely creatures, possums are in fact very sweet, affectionate animals who take well to domestication, so while it would have been easy to dismiss it with the thwack of the shovel, it had no apparent injuries other than its crippling, motherless weakness, and it was hard to deny the possum a chance. Until, that is, one among our party picked it up. Using a cloth, she began to scoop Zombie Possum into her hands, but yelled, "Oh shit, I think his head's coming off!"
"He's fucked!" I panicked, "Get the shovel!"
Indeed, Zombie Possum had a tremendous laceration slit across the side of his neck, hidden until now by his baby possum fuzz—a weird raw-chicken-looking swath of flesh that appeared neither healthy nor like a fresh wound. Its eyes, however vacant, were open, and it accepted tiny sips of water. Taking this as a good sign, we quickly determined that any animal emergency agency we took it to would immediately put the animal down. Thinking it could be saved, that it just needed care, it was shuttled into a car, where the heater would help warm it, and taken to the store for baby formula and an eyedropper. Later, the girl who held it while its benefactor was inside the store told me she'd wiped a bug from its snout, and immediately six more insects swarmed out of his eyes. Zombie Possum was rotting alive.
It would be nice to be able to say that Zombie Possum is as thriving today as his companion in living-corpse-hood, Zac Pennington. However, less than a week after Zombie Possum was adopted, his condition worsened, and when brought to a vet, was terminated. And though it would have felt like a curse to smash its helpless body right before lowering our perfectly healthy comrade into a death chamber... Frankly, the shovel would have been kinder.—Marjorie Skinner
Under the Ground
Through the air hole at my waist, a dim, diffused light faintly illuminated the backs of my colorless hands—reflecting even more colorless light through the whole of the box. Through the tube came the echo-chambered voices of my captors/protectors above, filling the coffin with a sound not altogether unlike experiencing a house party through an attic's heating vents—distant, yet surprisingly immediate.
For the first hour, I amused myself by blocking my breathing hole to obscure both light and sound from the surface, pacing my Powerade consumption, occasionally eavesdropping ("Do you think he's masturbating down there?"), and eventually snapping desperate pictures of myself from beyond the grave!—the flash from the digital camera my only prominent light source. I was surprised to find just how cold it was. In spite of a number of blankets padding the floor beneath me and the relatively confined space of the coffin trapping my body heat; I was just shy of comfortable in a jacket and vest for most of my time underground. Also sort of surprising was the sheer tedium of being buried alive—beyond the initial excitement of listening to massive clods of dirt exploding around you, there ain't really shit to do in a coffin. Thank god for Mike the Black Guy.
"Don't panic—it's just a black guy."
One of the perks of burying someone alive is the nice people you meet. Mike the Black Guy—his designation, not ours—was one of these people. Earlier in the burial, Mike and a friend had been walking down the alleyway adjacent to the site, and stopped to ask what we were doing.
"Oh, we're just burying someone alive for a newspaper article," one of us responded.
Mike and his friend gave us a look usually reserved for only the craziest of honkies. They continued on their way.
An hour later, Mike returned. "Don't panic," he said. "It's just a black guy." [AUTHOR'S NOTE: If this burial were a sitcom, Mike the Black Guy would be the Kramer or the Lenny and Squiggy, as he repeated this catchphrase no less than seven more times throughout the evening.]
"I was just curious," Mike said as he walked into the yard. "Do ya'll really have a dude buried down there?"
Naturally, he needed proof.
"Go tap on the cross," we told him.
Gingerly he crept over, tapped twice, and received two in response.
"Awww, Hell NO," Mike yelled, jumping away from the grave. "You did NOT bury some dude! For real?!" Then to anyone—primarily cops—within a block radius that might've been listening, "The black guy didn't do it!"
"Why don't you talk to him?" we asked. "Just yell into his air hole."
Again, he crept to the cross.
"Billy!," Mike yelled—why he called Zac "Billy" we have no idea. "Billy! Don't panic, it's just the black guy. Billy, I'll save you from these crazy people if you want me to."
From far below the ground, a muffled response: "No thanks... I'm good."
Again, Mike jumped away from the grave laughing. "Oh SHIT! You people really ARE crazy!"
After a bit, Mike was finally coming to terms with the man buried in front of him. "I'm no bitch," he noted while shaking his head, "but I keep a diary and this is going in it." Then Mike turned to me and asked, "Look, I'm an intelligent man, but... I just don't understand the point of burying somebody alive."
"It's just something white people do," I responded.
"I believe it," he replied. "I'm from Chicago, and black people don't DO this kind of shit there."
Mike then tried to sell us some coke and pot to give to Zac when and if he ever emerged from his grave. "But only if ya'll are cool. Are you cool?"
"Well, we are burying someone alive..."
Mike also offered to blow some pot smoke down into Zac's hole—but since we had decided earlier not to torture Zac by dropping a live rat inside his coffin, we weren't going to make his experience any nicer either.
After another half hour of chatting, Mike the Black Guy decided to take his leave.
"I'm going to the club now, and try to tell people about this. But I know they're gonna think I'm crazy," he said. "Just remember: If the cops come up around here, 'the black guy didn't do it!'"
Walking over to the grave, Mike leaned over the air pipe.
"Billy! This is the black guy! I gotta go! Good-bye, Billy!"
Zac's muffled response: "Good-bye, black guy."
"White people are crazy," Mike muttered as he walked down the alleyway.—Wm. Steven Humphrey
Still Under the Ground
As I had sadistically consumed a full bottle of water and half of my Powerade in the first hour, a good portion of my second hour was spent wrestling with the mechanics of my urinary system. Out of habit, I attempted to discretely piss into my water bottle with just my pants unzipped—a modesty quickly abandoned as I realized that such a maneuver would have to basically defy gravity to be successful, and despite the proximity of the familiar voices above me, Death himself could scarcely walk in on me down there.
Between the occasional (and completely futile) attempts to check in via walkie-talkie, hour two was largely marked by a resignation that as it stood, being buried alive was less about confronting my fears and more about contending with the sheer boredom of near absolute solitude. As darkness finally enveloped the coffin, even my smuggled iPod was largely just a dim light source—fearing that if I listened to headphones, I might miss one of our infrequent check-ins. At the two-hour mark I decided to call it—I was bored, tired, hungry... and I could last exactly one hour more. It was within 10 minutes of the second-hour communiqué that I began to have difficulty breathing.
My Body is Trying to Kill Me
For the first time since the casket had closed above me, a strain of dull panic began to set in. The air around me had clearly begun to thin as I entered the third hour: I was getting nauseous, my lungs required shallower, more rapid breaths to stay satisfied, and my head began to ache relentlessly—each symptoms of my encroaching carbon-monoxide poisoning. It may have taken a couple of hours underground, but peril had finally crept into my lonesome crypt, and I was committed to facing it for as long as I could. After another wrestling match with my embarrassingly small bladder (this time crouched like a cat above the half-full Powerade bottle), I spent the next 40 minutes lying as still as possible so as not to further exasperate my difficult breathing. The air had grown so thick with my own breath that I crouched fetally to press my mouth to the air hole—a futile endeavor, as oxygen no longer seemed to be reaching me. My own body was trying to kill me. Just six minutes shy of the three-hour mark, I Bat-signaled the team—nonchalantly informing them that I was "ready when you are" as I sucked fruitlessly at my air tube. Upon my admittedly passive cry for help, the din that I had been experiencing from above for the past three hours fell immediately silent—no talking, no digging, no unburying. A minute passed: "What the fuck are they doing up there?" Two minutes: "Is everything a fucking joke to these people?" Three minutes, four: "Was I actually just clawing at the ceiling?"
By the sixth minute I began to hear the dirt scraping away from above me—the whole process taking scarcely a minute ("We wanted you to hit the three-hour mark," my editor later explained). As the lid was lifted, the heat rushed out of my coffin like the opening of an oven door—or perhaps the escaping of desperate souls. I crawled out of my rat's nest dizzy, sore, and exhausted—running to a bush to piss one final time—and promptly got the fuck out of there.
Within an hour I was happily high on the fried foods and Percocet of my 25th birthday dinner—proud to count myself among the living undead. Over the span of four hours my burial had gone from cold monotony to near inadvertent asphyxiation—a contemplative arch that made it increasingly difficult to trivialize my own mortality. Cheating death—even a death of my own substandard design—had inadvertently instilled me with the proper respect for the eventual death I had heretofore treated rather indifferently. In the good company of such luminaries as Jesus Christ and David Blaine, I had successfully emerged from my grave full of life and vigor—though I did make certain not to order anything with garlic. You know, just in case.