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Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Death by Immurement

Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Death by Immurement

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Immurement is a practice whereby a person is enclosed within a confined space with no exits. Normally, a person who is immured is left in that space till he/she dies, either of dehydration or starvation. In cases where a person is buried alive, asphyxiation may be the cause of death instead. 

Although immurement is often carried out as a form of execution, there are also several other reasons of it being performed, for instance, as human sacrifice, or for ascetic purposes. Examples of immurement can be found in various cultures around the world, and across time. Additionally, there are many legends about people being immured. At times, skeletons have been found sealed behind walls, which has been regarded as evidence of this practice being carried out.

The word ‘immure’ is derived from the Latin words ‘in’ and ‘murus’, meaning ‘in or into’ and ‘wall’, respectively. The word traces its origin to the Medieval Latin word ‘immurare’, which literally means ‘to shut up within walls’. Considering the Latin origin of this word, what better place to begin a journey through the history of immurement than in ancient Rome?   

Immurement in Ancient Rome

In the context of ancient Rome, immurement is most often associated with the Vestal Virgins. More specifically, this was supposed to have been a punishment for those who were found guilty of breaking their vow of chastity. 

House of the Vestal Virgins in the Roman Forum, Rome (Jazmine / Adobe Stock)

The Vestal Virgins were a college of priestesses who served Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth. One of the most important duties of these priestesses was the tending of the perpetual fire at the Temple of Vesta. This fire represented Vesta’s protection of the city, and the dying of this sacred flame was regarded as a terrible omen. Given that the Vestal Virgins were responsible for the well-being of Rome, they were granted extraordinary privileges.

On the other hand, a Vestal Virgin who neglected her duties would be punished. Breaking one’s vow of chastity was one of the most serious crimes that a Vestal Virgin could commit, and is regarded as tantamount to treason. One punishment for Vestal Virgins who committed this crime was immurement. 

The Roman author Pliny the Younger, for instance, wrote, in a letter to a friend, about the immurement of a Vestal Virgin named Cornelia by the Emperor Domitian. Interestingly, a vivid account of a Vestal Virgin’s immurement can also be found in  A School Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, written during the 19th century by Anthon Smith. Fortunately, perhaps, the immurement of Vestal Virgins only had to be carried out on rare occasions. 

The Death of Cornelia (G. Machetti / CC BY 4.0)

Immurement, India and Shah Shuja

From Ancient Rome, we move forward in time, and over to the East. The year is 1660, and the place, India. On the 6th of May that year, Shah Shuja, the second son of Shah Jahan, the Mughal Emperor, boarded a ship that sailed from Dhaka to Arakan. 

Two years earlier, Shah Jahan had fallen ill, and a struggle for the throne had ensued. Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan’s third son, emerged victorious, and Shah Shuja was therefore fleeing India, finding asylum in Arakan. Shah Shuja’s plan was to stay in Arakan for a short while, before sailing on to Mecca, and finally to Persia or Constantinople. Since the prince arrived just as the monsoon was beginning, however, this did not happen.

Ultimately, Shah Shuja’s stay in Arakan lasted for several months, and ended with his death at the hands of his host. On the one hand, the Arakanese king did not hand the fugitive prince to the Mughals. On the other, he did not allow Shah Shuja to leave either. 

The Mughal Prince Shah Shuja (Golkonda Painter / Public Domain)

Moreover, the king asked for the hand of Shah Shuja’s eldest daughter in marriage, which did not please the prince at all. In desperation, Shah Shuja attempted to overthrow the king, but his plot came to light. Fighting broke out in the city, and the Mughal prince was defeated. Although Shah Shuja managed to escape into the jungle, he was subsequently caught, and executed. 

The prince’s family, however, were thrown into prison after their capture, although they were set free after some time. Moreover, the king married Shah Shuja’s eldest daughter. It seems that the surviving family members of Shah Shuja plotted to seize power again. Like the last time, the conspiracy was leaked. 

This time, however, the king decided to exterminate the entire family of Shah Shuja. According to the 17th century French physician and traveler, François Bernier, the men were decapitated with axes, whilst the women were “closely confined in their apartments, and left to die of hunger”. Even Shah Shuja’s eldest daughter, the king’s wife, who was said to have been heavily pregnant at the time, was not spared.

Mongol Funerary Immurement 

Immurement is most often carried out as a type of punishment, though it may also be done for other purposes, for instance, as a form of human sacrifice. Tales of the elite being buried with their servants or slaves as part of the funerary ritual can be found in various ancient cultures. It is believed that these people were sacrificed so that they could accompany their masters into the afterlife. 

In some cases, the sacrificial victims were killed before their burial. In others, however, they were buried alive. An instance of the latter is found in Ibn Battuta’s  Rihla, known also in English as  The Travels of Ibn Battuta.

Ibn Battuta travelled across much of 14th century Europe, Africa and Asia (Weetjesman / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ibn Battuta was a 14th century traveler from Tangier, Morocco. Between 1325 and 1355 AD, Ibn Battuta travelled a total of 120,000 km (75,000 miles), visiting almost every Muslim country that existed at that time, even reaching as far as China in the east. It was in his account of his visit to China, which was then ruled by the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, that Ibn Battuta wrote about the use of immurement for human sacrifice. 

According to Ibn Battuta, the Khan had been killed before he arrived at the palace. Ibn Battuta goes on to describe the funeral of the slain Khan, which is as follows:

“The Khan who had been killed, with about a hundred of his relatives, was then brought, and a large sepulcher was dug for him under the earth, in which a most beautiful couch was spread, and the Khan was with his weapons laid upon it. With him they placed all the gold and silver vessels he had in his house, together with four female slaves, and six of his favorite Mamluks, with a few vessels of drink. They were then all closed up, and the earth heaped upon them to the height of a large hill.”

Ibn Battuta reports that this same funerary ritual was performed for the relatives of the Khan as well, although incidentally Ibn Battuta does not provide the name of the Khan. Additionally, since his description of China is quite vague, historians are doubtful that Ibn Battuta actually made the trip to China. If it were so, then Ibn Battuta’s report about the Khan’s funeral and the accompanying human sacrifices may have been based on hearsay, and might not have happened at all.

Immurement and the Inca Children

The case of the so-called ‘Children of Llullaillaco’ or ‘Mummies of Llullaillaco’ may be regarded as being diametrically opposed to Ibn Battuta’s account of the Khan’s slaves being buried alive. In the case of these mummies, which were discovered on the border of Chile and Argentina in what was once part of the Inca Empire, there is archaeological evidence to prove the occurrence of human sacrifice through immurement. In addition, scientific analysis of the mummies revealed some aspects of their lives, in particular, their diet in the last year of their lives.

The Children of Llullaillaco consist of three mummies, dubbed the Llullaillaco Maiden, the Llullaillaco Boy, and the Lightning Girl. The three mummies were discovered in 1999, and subsequently, biochemical analyses were carried out on the remains. The results of these tests suggest that the children were chosen a year before their sacrifice, and took part in various rituals over the course of the year. These findings lend support to the historical records. 

The Llullaillaco Maiden, preserved by the cold. Salta, Argentina (grooverpedro / CC BY 2.0)

Additionally, the scientific tests reveal the diet of the children prior to their sacrifice. It was found, for example, that in the final year of her life, the Llullaillaco Maiden, who was about 13 years old when she died, was consuming elite foods, such as maize and animal protein. At the same time, there was an increase in her consumption of coca and chicha, an alcohol made from fermented maize. A noticeable increase in the consumption of the latter was detected in the last few weeks of her life. 

It is thought that the drugs and alcohol would have put the Llullaillaco Maiden into a stupor, or even render her unconscious on the day of her sacrifice. She, along with the two younger children, where then taken to the Llullaillaco volcano, placed in their tombs, and left to die. It is believed that the high levels of alcohol, combined with the cold, caused the death of the three children.

Immurement and Buddhism

In cases where immurement was carried out as a form of sacrifice, it is not entirely clear if the victims were willing or not. Immurement has also been performed for ascetic reasons, and its practitioners are almost certain to have undergone it voluntarily. This form of religious suicide has been practiced in HinduismJainism, and Buddhism, and examples can be found in written sources. The most remarkable of these, however, is the self-mummification practiced by certain Buddhist monks, as their mummified remains can still be seen today.

The best-known examples of self-mummified Buddhist monks are perhaps those from Japan, where they are called sokushinbutsu (meaning ‘a Buddha in this very body’). According to an article from 2016, there are 16 known  sokushinbutsu in Japan, though it is believed that there are many more, yet to be discovered. 

It is thought that these monks mummified themselves in an attempt to imitate Kukai, the 8th/9th century Japanese monk who founded the Shingon school of Buddhism. Although Kukai is recorded to have died in 835 AD, legends suggest otherwise. 

Kukai (Integrated Collections Database of the National Museums, Japan / CC BY 4.0)

According to legend, the monk did not die, but entered a state of meditative trance called  nyujo. The legend goes on to state that Kukai plans to emerge from his suspended animation in about 5.67 million years, when he would “usher a predetermined number of souls into nirvana”. 

The first recorded example of a Japanese monk attempting self-mummification, however, is from 1081. A monk by the name of Shojin tried to follow in the footsteps of Kukai, and had himself buried alive. When his disciples came to retrieve his body, however, they found that it had begun to rot. 

It took the Japanese monks years of trial and error before they found the perfect way to mummify themselves. This process took at least three years, and at the heart of it was the  mokujikigyo, which translates to mean ‘tree-eating training’. Instead of simply starving themselves to death, the monks would subsist on things they could forage on the mountain. This took a thousand days, after which the monk would be spiritually prepared to enter  nyujo

Most monks, however, are known to have undergone two or even three rounds of this process. Biologically speaking, the  mokujikigyo serves to rid the body of fat, muscle, and moisture, as well as to cut off nutrients from the body’s parasites and bacteria. Both effects would help to preserve the body from decay after death.

The monk would then reduce all food intake and drink only a limited amount of water for the next hundred days. In the monk’s final days, his disciples would lower him into a box in a 3m (10 ft) deep pit. A bamboo airway was inserted through the lid, and the monk buried live. The monk would continue his meditation, and the regular ringing of a bell indicated that he was still alive. 

Remains of Luang Pho Daeng, an enshrined sokushinbutsu (Andrew Yang / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

When the ringing stopped, the monk’s disciples would open the tomb to confirm their master’s death, remove the bamboo airway, and re-bury the tomb. After a thousand days, the body would be disinterred, so that it could be determined if the monk had truly become a  sokushinbutsu. If no signs of decay are found, the monk would be declared a true  sokushinbutsu, and enshrined.

Immurement Through the Ages

To conclude, immurement has been practiced in various parts of the world at different times in history. Immurement was often carried out as a form of capital punishment. This is seen, for instance, in the examples of the Vestal Virgins, and the daughters of Shah Shuja. 

Nevertheless, immurement was also undertaken for other reasons, for instance, as human sacrifice, or for ascetic purposes. The former is seen in the case of the victims buried alive with a dead Khan, as reported by Ibn Battuta, and the Children of Llullaillaco, whereas the latter is represented by the Japanese sokushinbutsu.

Top image: A Mongolian woman condemned to die by Immurement, 1913. Source: Stéphane Passet / Public Domain.

By Wu Mingren             


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You always find a new rich subject matter that has been neglected to write about. I enjoy your work.


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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