Rufina Cambaceres - The Woman Buried Alive

For several centuries, many people have been mistaken for dead and have awakened in their own coffins. There’s much evidence of this, such as scratch marks from inside coffins and corpses with wounds on their hands and feet from trying to get out until they finally suffocate or die of a heart attack. The story of Rufina Cambaceres, a young woman from a wealthy family, has become a popular story in Argentina most likely because of unfounded, salacious rumors.

Rufina is currently buried in the La Recoleta cemetery, which is located in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I've been there before, but I never went inside. This was a long time ago. I remember that the LMFAO song was really popular. “Party Rock Anthem” was playing near Eva Perón's grave, I wish I was joking.

Remember that this kind of thing – burying people alive – happened all the time, or at least enough times in which people have developed ways for the seemingly dead to alert others in case they wake up, like tying a string to your finger that’s attached to a bell above ground. They would even hire workers to stay near the grave for weeks in case it rang. There is a story of an unnamed guy who was also buried in La Recoleta with a mechanism installed in his coffin to open it in case he woke up. However, he never had to use it because when he died he was really dead.

Most recently in 1995, Fabrizio Caselli patented a modern security coffin. Its design included an emergency alarm, an intercom, a flashlight, a breathing apparatus, as well as a heart monitor and a stimulator. There are no documented cases of anyone being saved by a security coffin. In addition, most people embalm, so the chances of waking up in their coffin are almost impossible.Now on with the story. Rufina Cambaceres was born on May 31, 1883 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She was the daughter of the famous writer and politician Eugenio Cambaceres. Eugenio was the son of a French chemist who emigrated to Argentina and his mother was a local woman of English descent. Eugenio participated in politics briefly before resigning to write literature.

He married Luisa Bacichi in 1881, a dancer from Italy, which was part of the Austrian Empire at that time. Immigration from Europe to Argentina had become enormously popular at that time. Immigrants came mainly from Spain and Italy to find a better life, and Luisa was one of them. Their marriage was scandalous since she was an immigrant and not in high society, while Eugenio came from a wealthy family. Although his father, as I said before, was a French immigrant, in those times immigration was a divisive issue in Argentina.

They had a daughter, Rufina, who grew up in Argentine high society and unfortunately never got to really know her father. Eugenio died in 1889, when she was only six years old (although some say he died a year earlier). Who knows, but in any case, he died of tuberculosis when Rufina was very young.

She led a relatively quiet life until her 19th birthday. Now this is where the story really begins. In 1902, Rufina had just had a party at her house to celebrate her day. After the party ended, she went up to her room to get dressed, as she was going to an opera with her mother. There are stories of her mother, Luisa, hearing Rufina scream and running upstairs to her daughter's room, but most likely Rufina collapsed and was found unresponsive by a maid. They sent for doctors who declared her dead, stating a heart attack as the cause. At this time, there were many rumors about what happened – even a scandalous rumor that her boyfriend was having an affair with her mother, Luisa, and upon learning of this from a friend, she died of a heart attack! There is no evidence that this is true, but it is juicy gossip to say the least.

Although Luisa probably never had a relationship with Rufina's boyfriend, she had many relationships after Eugenio's death, including the birth of the illegitimate son of the future president of Argentina, Hipólito Yrigoyen (pronounced Irigollen), named Luis Hernán Yrigoyen. Rufina's half-brother Luis was five years old when she died. It's not important to the story, but there it is.

Anyway, they had a funeral for Rufina and buried her in a mausoleum in La Recoleta, near where they had buried her father. A few days after the funeral, a cemetery worker noticed that the lid of the coffin had been moved. He thought that maybe some grave robbers tried to break into the coffin. But after opening the lid, he noticed something much worse. Rufina had wounds around her face and hands.

We don’t know exactly what happened when she awoke, but we can imagine she awoke to find herself trapped in a heavy marble coffin and most likely screamed and pleaded. Not only is she in a damn coffin, but she's running out of air, which means she must’ve woken up not long after the funeral. It could’ve been that very night.

According to the Popular Science website, a normal and healthy person might have between 10 minutes and an hour, or between six hours and 36 hours, depending on who you ask, before settling in a premature grave. So one thing is for sure, it would not be long. It all comes down to the amount of air available in the coffin itself. The smaller you are, the longer you will survive because you will occupy less space, which means more space for oxygen. The moment your oxygen supply goes away, that is the end. Swimmers or marathon runners with excellent lung capacity can gain an extra minute of breathing, if that.

But again, the lid had moved, so maybe there was a small space for air. She could have been there for days. The cemetery worker noticed the the lid that been moved a week after her funeral. So it’s possible she could have died of anxiety, a panic attack. It has happened here in New York. A 26-year-old woman named Danielle Goldberg died when a blackout in 2010 left her trapped in the elevator of her apartment building in Staten Island. She was stuck there for maybe an hour. But she had a congenital heart defect, so it’s not a common occurrence.

As for Rufina, it turns out that she did not die at home, but in the same coffin where she woke up. What happened to her when she was in her room on her birthday was a catalepsy, which is “a medical condition characterized by a trance or seizure with a loss of sensation and awareness accompanied by body stiffness,” according to Google. This is something real that has happened to people. It is a symptom of certain nervous disorders such as epilepsy or Parkinson's. I'm not sure of the causes, but it can happen to anyone, although it's very rare.

Did you ever read "The Premature Burial" by Edgar Allan Poe? The narrator develops catalepsy and is afraid of being buried alive by mistake. He becomes obsessed with his fear and even goes so far as to build a tomb made with equipment that allows him to get help. Then the narrator wakes up in total darkness. He screams but soon realizes that he is in a bed on a boat and had just awakened from a terrible nightmare. The story ends well with him overcoming his fear. It’s a fantastic short story. I also suggest reading “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe, published in 1839. And definitely watch the movie starring Vincent Price. One of the characters in the book and the movie also suffered from catalepsy. And guess what happens to her. They bury her alive and she then comes out of the grave – but it's too late, she's gone crazy. As the last line of the story reads, "And the deep and humid tarn closed sullenly and silently on the fragments of the 'House of Usher.' ”

Aaaand back to Rufina. She died in the worst way possible at only 19 years old. You can visit her in her new coffin in the same place where she died more than a hundred years ago in La Recoleta. There is a large life-size statue of her that was built soon after. The statue resembling the young woman is appropriately standing at the door of her mausoleum, appearing to be able to walk out. Rufina's grandmother, upon hearing the news, traveled from Italy to pay for the new coffin and statue.
Some people have said they’ve heard screams or sometimes singing from inside the coffin. Premature burials, as they call it, have been occurring since the beginning of time with the first recorded premature burial in the 14th century. Rufina's was the first in Argentina. More recently was an incident in 2005 in which a body bag was sent to the Matarese Funeral Home in Ashland, Massachusetts. The funeral director saw that the 39-year-old woman was alive and called paramedics. She’s doing fine now!

This other incident is not so happy. In 2014, a woman in Greece was buried alive, six feet under and everything. One hour after the funeral, some people walking nearby said they heard screaming and loud thuds. They called the authorities and dug up the coffin. But when they reached her it was too late. She had had a heart attack. She was suffering from cancer and her medication is what they think made her look dead. Doctors even did heart failure tests before the burial to make sure that she was dead.

Do you want to know how it feels? You can join the Six Feet Under Club in San Francisco and Austria. They bury you or if you’d prefer, you with your partner, for 45 minutes. Although I think it might be a sex thing with them.

Or if you’re more scared than turned on, join The Society for Prevention of People Being Buried Alive that started in the mid-19th century. An organization for taphophobics with a fascination with and/or fear of premature burials.

And to end this unsettling topic, a last image of what you’d find if you were to open a coffin of a premature burial: not only do people have bruises all over their body, but they also scratch their faces and tear their skin and fingernails out. They tear out all their hair and clothes and sometimes break bones trying to get out. And they’re most often found lying face down.