How Long Can You Survive Being Buried Alive? Not Long, But Still Too Long

By Nick Venable | 8 years ago

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While I may get creeped out by walking down a dark alley in the middle of the night, it’s not a real fear I have, as I try to keep those to a minimum. I have enough problems without having to worry about being scared of things. But when the subject of being buried alive comes up, as it often does at dinner parties and in grocery store lines, I freely cop to getting bogged down with the heebie jeebies. Perhaps purposefully, I’ve never considered just how long it would take for someone to meet their solitary demise in such a way. Luckily, PopSci figured it out, and it turns out it doesn’t really take all that long for someone to die in that situation.

But it still sounds like a goddamned eternity.

It all comes down to how big the coffin is, and how big the person is. An average coffin will measure out to 84 x 28 x 23 inches, with a total volume of around 54 cubic inches, or 886 liters. Air is the most important element here, so don’t go thinking that having water or food down there would help you; you’d be dead long before your survival would rely on that Philly steak sandwich shoved inside your pocket.

The volume of the average human is 66 liters, which leaves 820 liters of air, only 164 liters of which is actual oxygen. And if we assume the coffinized person breathes in 0.5 liters of oxygen a minute, which is probably a low estimation given the person would probably spend some time freaking out and near hyperventilation, it would only take around 5 and a half hours before the oxygen ran out. Heavier people will go quicker, while slimmer folks will last longer. Maybe the ongoing “War Against Obesity” should use this buried alive concept as its next campaign.

5 and a half hours. It would take you longer to watch a season marathon of The Walking Dead, at which point you’d probably be wishing for death anyway. It would be bad enough anticipating expiring while sitting down in a comfortable chair getting the world’s greatest foot massage. Being stuck inside a box like a helpless piece of cereal sounds so much worse. I’m my own best company, but not when all there is to think about is magician Lance Burton and how he probably didn’t have to experience any of this. But at least I’d die knowing I could still donate my organs and stem cells, assuming anyone ever found me.

And of course, even if you were able to somehow get free of the coffin, all the compacted dirt above it would ultimately smother you or crush you. But Alan R. Leff, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, has the most depressing silver lining imaginable: the carbon dioxide building up would eventually make you sleepy and pass out before the actual death. “You might feel the suffocation,” he says, “and it would obviously be terrifying,” but the last leg of the journey would be taken on autopilot.

So go out there and soak up as much of the world as you can while you’re still above ground. And in the meantime, check out George Sluizer’s excellent 1988 thriller The Vanishing, the trailer for which is below.