Inside The Grisly Phenomenon Of Coffin Births

Published January 29, 2018
Updated February 7, 2024

Thanks to embalming practices, coffin births rarely occur these days. However, between the 1600s and 1800s, it wasn't uncommon for a deceased woman to give birth.

Coffin Birth

Caitlin Doughty / YouTubeRemains of a coffin birth, with a child’s skeleton inside of an adult’s skeleton.

There is a strange, rare phenomenon that occurs — thankfully less so in the modern era — known as postmortem fetal extrusion, or more commonly, coffin birth. It is as grisly and horrifying as the name would suggest.

For much of human history, the chemical preservation of human bodies was, well, nonexistent. As such, in very rare circumstances, when pregnant women died, certain processes in the decomposing bodies — namely, gas pressure — could indeed cause the dead woman’s uterus to compress. And surprisingly, in some circumstances, the child survived and lived on into adulthood.

Luckily, modern postmortem preservation techniques have almost completely eliminated coffin births from happening. Still, nothing is impossible.

Recorded Cases Of Coffin Births Throughout History

In 1551, the Spanish Inquisition was in full swing. Mandated by the Spanish crown, those deemed heretical to Catholic orthodoxy (Jews, Muslims, and a plethora of other peoples) were subject to forced conversion, torture, and even death.

As recorded by the Transactions of the Obstetrical Society of London, one such victim was hanged to death under the hot Spanish sun, her body left twisting in the winds blowing in from North Africa.

Four hours later, it was discovered she had been pregnant when two dead infants fell from her womb.

This was unusually quick for postmortem fetal extrusion, but since the record itself is vague, it is unclear if other factors caused this rapid coffin birth. Perhaps the ambient conditions caused her body to putrefy at an accelerated rate, or perhaps something else altogether created this morbid scene.

Fast-forward nearly a century later, and a woman named Emme Toplace died of convulsions was interred quickly while her husband was away. When the bereaved visited her grave roughly three days later, he allegedly heard a child’s cry and ordered her disinterred. When her coffin was opened, it was discovered that she had given birth to a baby boy.

Siberian Coffin Birth

Vladimir BazaliiskiiA prehistoric grave unearthed in Siberia where a coffin birth occurred.

He lived and was named Fils de la Terre which means “Son of the Earth.” Emme’s parish register entry reads: “April ye 20, 1650, was buried Emme, the wife of Thomas Toplace, who was found delivered of a child after she had lain two hours in the grave.”

The 1896 medical compendium Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine cites several other examples of coffin birth. Most of these occurred before burial, though there are quite a few examples of archaeologists discovering human remains where it was clear that a coffin birth had happened, given the second set of smaller remains.

These bizarre meetings of life and death were some of the earliest examples of coffin births. Though it is rare, it is a genuine medical phenomenon, and medical authorities have been observing and recording these cases since the 16th century.

What Causes A Coffin Birth?

The phenomenon typically occurs between 48 and 72 hours after the death of the pregnant person—abdominal gases build from the body’s decomposition, and the increasing pressure pushes the fetus through the vaginal opening, thus “birthing” it after death.

True coffin births are very rare, and similar phenomena often get lumped in with them. For example, rumors surfaced that Laci Peterson, a young woman who was murdered by her husband in 2002, had a coffin birth floated around after her fetus was discovered, but investigators do not believe that was the case, as markings on the two bodies and the state of Peterson’s cervix are inconsistent with the signs of canal birth.

The more accepted explanations were that the fetus was removed forcibly from Peterson’s body, or in the postmortem wear and tear, the abdomen opened and released the fetus.

Coffin Birth In A Medieval Grave

University of FerraraA coffin birth found in a medieval grave, uncovered in 2018.

Part of the issue with determining how and why these happen is, of course, that no one has actually been able to scientifically observe the process in action, for reasons that should not need to be explained.

One likely explanation for why this occurs has to do with how the body breaks down and putrefies after death. As this happens, bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract increase and spread rapidly. Per the National Library of Medicine, this in turn increases metabolic activity in the body, during which various gases including carbon dioxide, methane, and hydrogen sulfide.

The bacteria, meanwhile, begin to secrete exoenzymes that break down the body’s cells and proteins, weakening organ tissue and allowing the gases to spread throughout the body. Around this time, the body becomes bloated, and as it continues to bloat, various fluids are pushed out of the body’s orifices.

And, in some cases, those gases can prolapse the uterus, causing a fetus to be expelled from the body.

While always highly unusual, coffin births are even rarer in the modern world due to embalming practices and cremation. With greater medical knowledge, and greater medical interference after death, coffin births do not occur often.

They do, however, still happen in today’s world.

Modern Examples Of Coffin Births

In 2005, a 34-year-old woman was found dead from an apparent overdose of heroin, to which she was addicted. She was also eight months pregnant at the time. Severely decomposed, the fetus was found partially emerged from the mother’s body, presumably a case of real-life coffin birth. Sadly, as most often happens, the fetus and mother were both found dead.

It was a strange, serendipitous discovery of a modern day coffin birth, but it wasn’t the only time this happened.

Three years later, in 2008, a 38-year-old woman in Panama disappeared from her home. Four days later, she was found dead in an open field with a plastic bag over her head and a gag in her mouth — clearly, she had been murdered. She was seven months pregnant, and the heat and humidity had caused her body to bloat even more than it typically would have.

During her autopsy, it was discovered that the fetus had been expelled from her, though the umbilical cord was surprisingly still intact.

And even more recently, when the body of Shanann Watts was discovered in 2018 — after she and her two children were murdered by her husband Chris — her autopsy report revealed that her uterus had prolapsed, and the three-month-old fetus along with it.

These are, of course, incredibly rare and tragic examples of this strange phenomenon, but it goes to illustrate the point that this does still happen, unfortunately.

As rare and morbid as coffin births are, they are a distilled representation of the thin line between life and death.

Now that you’ve read about coffin births, read terrifying true stories of people being buried alive. Then read about Lenin’s Mausoleum and how he became the best preserved corpse on earth. \

Andrew Milne
Andrew Milne holds a Bachelor's in journalism from Fordham University and his work has appeared on Bon Appétit and Food Network.
Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.