Taphophobia is the irrational fear of being buried alive. It’s a fear that came true for Mary J. Nepper, according to local legend.
Nepper, born in 1868, was 35 years old when her family mistook her for dead and had her entombed in the Glenwood Cemetery in Chipley. According to Nepper’s great-great-great-granddaughter Barbara Russell, Nepper had stopped breathing and no heartbeat could be detected, leaving her family to believe she had died.
“As far as they could tell back then she did not show any signs of life,” Russell said. “They waited as long as they could and then the doctor pronounced her dead.”
Per Nepper’s request, she was placed in an above-ground tomb.
“She had always made her wishes to not be put in the ground known,” Russell said. “She wanted to be above ground so they placed her in a tomb that looks like a bed just as she wanted.”
Nepper was laid to rest with only one valuable, a single ornate ring with a deep purple stone, on her finger.
For four days, Nepper laid in the tomb as grave robbers had been running rampant through Glenwood Cemetery at the time. The would-be robbers saw Nepper’s grave as easy pickings and pried her tomb open and saw Nepper lying peacefully.
The robbers were in for a surprise when one reached for the ring on Nepper’s hand and the alleged corpse sat up and scared them away.
“As soon as they touched the ring she was wearing, Mary sat up,” Russell said. “She then climbed out of her tomb and went home.”
According to the story handed down in Russell’s family, Nepper saw her robbers but it is not known if they were ever caught or charged with a crime.
Nepper had two children with her husband before her false death experience, but no one knows what happened to them.
“Since her husband had died and the family believed her to be dead, the kids may have been adopted out or given up, no one really knows,” Russell said.
After returning from the grave, Nepper went on to marry again and have three more children. Not much more is known about the life she lived after being buried alive. Upon her second “death” in 1911 at the age of 43, an autopsy was performed leaving doctors to still ponder if she was in fact truly dead this time as well.
Nepper was placed in the same tomb she was the first time but she didn’t walk out of it again. She was not buried with her ring the second time. Instead, it is a family heirloom that has been passed down through the generations.
In an odd occurrence, Russell said the moss on Nepper’s grave cannot be found anywhere else in the cemetery, nor is it growing up from the ground. Russell went on to say that sometimes on a cold day if one lays their hand on Nepper’s tomb, it radiates warmth.
Having an ancestor who was buried alive is something not many can claim, but Russell is proud of her heritage and keeps a sense of humor about it.
“When I die, you better make sure I’m dead before you put me in the ground,” Russell said.
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