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Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear Paperback – March 17, 2002


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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

What could be worse than waking up in a dark, confined space and realizing that you are in a sealed coffin? Jan Bondeson details the history--factual and fictional--of this primal fear in Buried Alive.

Premature burial has a long literary history, from Boccaccio's Decameron to Romeo and Juliet to Wilkie Collins's Jezebel's Daughter and, of course, Edgar Allan Poe's "Premature Burial" and other works. Macabre tales of narrow escapes owing to grave robbers and lazy gravediggers, as well as horrific stories of exhumed coffins containing bloodied, contorted corpses, were common in both the medical and the lay press in the 18th and 19th centuries. Bondeson shows how these stories reflected public fears--fears caused in part by the development of resuscitation techniques for drowning victims, which fed a growing doubt in the reliability of prevailing signs of death. The medical community was divided on the issue; some were offended that the general public doubted their ability to determine death. Others, however, searched for definitive signs of death, many of which seem ludicrous today (one suggestion involved sticking the finger of a suspected corpse in the doctor's ear; if life remained the doctor would hear a faint buzzing sound). Bondeson also describes, in gleeful detail, other systems developed to prevent premature burial, including elaborate security coffins with signaling devices inside. More remarkable are the "Leichenhäuser" or waiting mortuaries where corpses were kept in warm rooms until putrefaction was evident. Each corpse had a number of strings or wires attached to its fingers and toes, so that the slightest twitch would sound an alarm and medical aid could be brought immediately. These Leichenhäuser were built in many cities in German-speaking Europe; one built in Munich in 1808 featured both a common and a luxury section and was open to the public (Mark Twain visited in the 1880s); the Vienna Leichenhäus used an electronic warning system (though not in its separate section for suicides, it's interesting to note); and two were built in Stuttgart as late as 1875.

Were these precautions necessary? No "patient" ever actually revived while in any of the German waiting mortuaries, but Bondeson does describe some documented near-miss cases from the 20th century in which supposed corpses were revived. Throughout the book, Bondeson recounts old wives' tales, urban legends, and scientific study with equal levels of straightforwardness and humor--and, perhaps, a slight smirk. Though it's not for the squeamish (which is perhaps an unnecessary warning; what squeamish person is going to read a book about premature burial?), Buried Alive is an entertaining and eminently readable look at this little-known history. --Sunny Delaney --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

"The huge modern textbooks on forensic medicine... choose to ignore the fact that less than 150 years ago many medical practitioners freely admitted to being uncertain whether their patients were dead or alive." As the author (whose excellent The London Monster was published in December; see Forecasts, Nov. 20, 2000) shows in this engrossing yet disappointing book, the fear of accidentally being buried alive reverberated throughout 18th- and 19th-century Europe and the United States, and even continued into the 20th century. Hundreds of stories about people being discovered buried alive circulated in medical journals, literature (from the medieval Decameron to Edgar Allan Poe) and popular lore. This fear spurred doctors to debate when life ends, and motivated Germany to create mortuaries in the 1800s in which corpses rotted for days before they could be interred. In 1822, another German invented a "security coffin," in which a person buried prematurely could breathe through a tube by triggering a mechanism. The subject is fascinating, and Bondeson, a medical doctor, is thorough in discussing the alleged cases. The "shameful past of medical science with regard to the certainty of the signs of death" was, indeed, a real problem. Yet he readily acknowledges that the numbers of those buried alive were "exaggerated." If that is true, as by his own account it appears to be, then a book that studied the fear itself and what factors affected this deep-rooted dread might have been more fruitful. The few pages where Bondeson does this--where, for instance, he discusses the impact of the coffin's development in the 17th and 18th centuries--are where his subject truly comes, well, alive. 30 illus.. (Mar.)Forecast: It worked for Poe and it'll work for Bondeson. This book, cleverly rich with illustrations, will not only sell well in hardcover but could prove a hit down the road in trade paperback.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (March 17, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 039332222X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393322224
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,078,065 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

We have outgrown this bogey, which makes Bondeson's book all that much more fun to read.
R. Hardy
Not very readable as it seems to linger on a subject then repeat a previous subject, but interesting all the same, if gruesome.
Yvonne Kirk
If you have an interest in medicine, the history of medicine or anthropology, this book will be facinating.
Jarrod D. Knudson

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By JWH on May 3, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This is an interesting little book. Apparently in the very recent past, there existed fairly widespread fear of being buried prematurely. This was in part due to the fact that the pronouncement of death was not performed by a physician, but rather by a layperson, usually a family member. This fear led to the introduction of various schemes to try to prevent this horrific mistake. With some thoroughness, the author details these attempts to prevent a poor soul from awakening within a coffin. Some of these strategies included Hospitals for the Dead in Germany where corpses could be monitored for a period of time prior to burial, or safety coffins equipped with various escape devices, food, drink and books, or bells and whistles and sometimes, even telephones! There is much more described in this text and some of the ideas were downright macabre.
The tone of the book is somewhat light. Although quite scholarly in his research, the author presents the material in a very readable and often humorous way without resorting to too ghoulish or juvenile humor.
I have eclectic reading interests and picked this out as something different to read, and that it was. It is interesting and enjoyable reading. It is very thorough and at over three hundred pages I learned more about this odd and historic phobia than I really needed to know. However, if you are so motivated, you will be enlightened and entertained by the author's prose. If for some inexplicable reason you need to know something about this topic, I could not imagine a more comprehensive source.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 2, 2001
Format: Hardcover
In the early part of the seventeenth century, Jacques-Benigne Winslow, a Danish anatomist who lived and taught in Paris, claimed that, "it is evident from Experience, that many apparently dead, have afterwards proved themselves alive by rising from their shrouds, their coffins, and even from their graves." Winslow suggested that the means for determining death were unreliable and, hence, there was a widespread risk of being buried alive. Winslow went on to write a detailed compendium of alleged cases of premature burial, mixing fact with folklore and creating a kind of Ur-text for what subsequently became both a widespread popular fear in Western Europe and an at-times respected (if sometimes eccentric) intellectual and social movement for measures to eliminate the risk of premature burial.
In "Buried Alive", Dr. Jan Bondeson, professor at the University of Wales College of Medicine, traces the history of the fear of premature burial in Western Europe and the United States, a fear that attained its clearest popular expression in the macabre literature of writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, but which had a much more significant, albeit less well known, intellectual history. Beginning with Winslow's treatise, which was written in Latin and known by few outside the Parisian medical profession, Bondeson carefully explores how Winslow's work was translated into French, and popularized, in the mid-eighteenth century by Jean-Jacques Bruhier, another French physician. While Winslow's Latin treatise would have been confined to the dusty archives of history, Bruhier was a great popularizer and his translation and expansion of Winslow's book was widely read and translated in France and other countries of Western Europe.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Atheen on January 22, 2003
Format: Hardcover
While it's title suggests a melodramatic and lurid tale, Jan Bondeson's book Buried Alive is actually an historic account of a growing preoccupation with anti-mortem burial that started during the 1700's in Europe and did not decline until the early 20th Century. While many of the stories that the author recounts from the pamphlets, periodicals, and book length works of that time period were indeed colorful, they were also for the most part just as much works of fiction as the stories on the same topic by the famed 19th Century novelist and poet Edgar Allen Poe. It seems entirely likely that Poe's work itself may have been influenced by the sensational journalism of the time.
Bondeson notes that there are strong components of sadism, necrophilia, and fantasy about most of the stories of premature burial and an almost folktale continuity among some of the stories from one country to another. As he points out, when reliable authorities undertook to investigate the underlying story of a premature burial as reported in some of these accounts, they almost unanimously discovered that the stories were pure fabrications used to sell newspapers or to encourage the public to buy specially designed coffins, build special hospitals for the dead, or simply purchase an author's book or support his cause.
When Bondeson analyzes the descriptions of the supposed victims of anti-mortem burial, he makes it clear that totally normal causes for their disarray can be proposed, but that the data supporting more rational interpretations were either unavailable at the time or were ignored for the sake of a good story. It's not that he feels that this type of disaster is impossible or that all stories of misdiagnosis are confabulations. Quite the contrary.
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