I hummed the Smiths' "I Know It's Over" as the dirt fell 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 light leaks forced 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.


I was 13 years old 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 then 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 important, 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 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 passed, the line between fascination and fantasy inevitably began to slowly dissolve—until one day I mentioned it to a friend in passing. A few weeks later it was a startling reality—the details were all arranged. All I had to do was get in the box.


In the weeks that preceded 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—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 was an open casket memorial/rock show—complete with pre-recorded video valedictions between sets—that heralded a move from one city to another. In a sense, the burial would be a completion of that service—finally returning my body to its earthly home forever. Or at for least a few hours.


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. The only man I knew qualified to hammer a nail into a piece of wood, Rob Thompson, was drafted to construct my coffin—a surprisingly spacious seven-by-three-by-three-foot tomb constructed primarily of plywood, and described 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 pleasing) breathing solution: a PVC pipe extending some seven feet into the air, and shaped to form a cross.

Another friend was put in charge of scouting a plot of land—someone's backyard, as it turns out—and supervising the backhoe that would dig my grave the day before the burial. It turns out that burying yourself alive is a surprisingly cut-and-dried process. Who knew, right? Sure, some safety precautions (walkie-talkies, breathing holes, a coffin big enough to aerobicize in, etc.) had begun to neuter some of the more dangerous facets one might encounter if 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 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 of the earth above me—the prevention of that fate I foolishly trusted to 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 that of suffocation. I would be lying in a poorly ventilated box with an oxygen source designed with little or no regard for the properties of gravity. It was likely that I would at the very least experience some carbon dioxide 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 friends who were to serve as my only bridge between the living and the dead. I mean, what's to worry about?


Following a cross-town trip, during which my coffin hung precariously out of the back of the van's open doors, my pallbearers and I came upon the machine-made open grave just after 4:00 p.m. As it was evident that we had underestimated the necessary width of the hole that would accommodate my subterranean home, 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. This was 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 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 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.


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.

During my first hour buried alive, 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.


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 discreetly 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. Darkness finally enveloped the coffin—even my smuggled iPod was largely just a dim light source, as I feared 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 communication that I began to have difficulty breathing.


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 dioxide poisoning. It may have taken a couple of hours underground, but peril had finally crept into my lonesome crypt. 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 to not further exasperate my difficult breathing. The air had grown so thick with my own breath that I crouched in the fetal position 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 friend 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 undead. Over the span of four hours my burial had gone from cold monotony to near asphyxiation—a contemplative arc 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.