- Paperback: 324 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; New Ed edition (17 Mar. 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 039332222X
- ISBN-13: 978-0393322224
- Product Dimensions: 1.6 x 0.2 x 2.1 cm
- Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 846,499 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear Paperback – 17 Mar 2002
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More About the Author
About the Author
Jan Bondeson, a physician, holds a Ph.D. in experimental medicine and works at the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology in London.
Inside This Book(Learn More)
Top Customer Reviews
The book covers topics such as premature internment in fiction; stories about people who have been rescued after being prematurely buried (as well as of others for whom the rescue came too late!); the gruesomely named "hospitals for the dead"; security coffins (devices to inform those above ground that the user is below ground); a chapter titled "The Final Struggle", which can be difficult to read at times; and discussions concerning the physical signs of death, whether people were actually buried alive and if they still are being so.
The books title's subtitle is "The Terrifying History of our Most Primal Fear". Truly, few subjects can so fascinate us yet be so difficult to think about.
An excellently researched, developed and informative work.
author managed to make it readable and (dear I say it) enjoyable...
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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. From this popularization, there developed a widespread popular fear of premature burial, as well as a legitimate medical debate about how to determine whether a person was dead or alive.
The popular fear and the professional debate went through many iterations. In Germany, Christopher Wilhelm Hufeland, a practicing physician, published an article in 1790 which outlined a plan to erect a house for the dead in his hometown of Weimar. The idea was based upon the general belief that the only reliable means of determining death was the onset of putrefaction. Popularizing an idea originally suggested in Bruhier's work, Hufeland's proposal was avidly endorsed within Germany and led to the construction of numerous waiting mortuaries or "Leichenhauser", where the dead were attached to alarm devices to detect movement and identify those who were not, in fact, dead and also to observe the onset of putrefaction. Indeed, Leichenhauser continued to exist into the twentieth century in Germany.
In England and the United States, both the popular and medical concern about premature burial arrived much later. Indeed, it was only in the nineteenth century that the English and Americans began to give any credence to the fear and to the medical issue and, even then, it largely became the short-lived domain of spiritualists and charlatans. It did result, however, in the development of a number of ingenious security vaults and other coffins and burial devices intended to allow the person buried alive to survive and signal those in the world of the living of their grim fate. Perhaps the most well known of these devices was the so-called "Bateson's Belfry", a coffin which allowed its still living inhabitant to ring a bell that stood above the grave, presumably permitting a post-interment rescue.
"Buried Alive" is a fascinating and methodical exploration of the fear and the intellectual and social history surrounding the idea of premature burial in Western Europe and the United States from the eighteenth century to the present. However, unlike Bondeson's earlier work, "A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities", which never ceased to fascinate and entertain, "Buried Alive" is much more like an academic treatise, a book which certainly has suitable rewards for the reader, but which is written in prose that is dry as bone.
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. In assessing the accounts, he points to several that he believes might have been real. He also defends the fears at the time as not totally unrealistic and is unwilling to label individuals who took precautions against such an occurance as "phobic."
Interesting too is the inverse correlation that he points out between the rise in the fear of awaking in a coffin and a general decline in confidence in the medical establishment of any given period. He notes a similar modern day fear being declared dead prematurely that occurred during the 1980s and 90s when medical practitioners were uncertain about the exact criteria for declaring an individual dead, as transplant became a viable form of treatment and viable organs scarce, and as prolonged life support became more successful. At just what point such support becomes a prolongation of the dying process is still a burning issue in many countries, as the book How We Die makes very apparent.
Since I work in a teaching hospital on a surgical intensive care unit and have been confronted with a number of the ethical issues associated with death and dying and with the concerns of family and friends over the well being of family members at this stage of life, I found the book of considerable interest. The historic effect of the media on public opinion and its not always altruistic agenda were also of interest.
The book is probably not as entertaining as one would expect from the title, but it is very interesting and informative as history. It's certainly a very carefully researched and lucid account. For those who are more interested in the process of death and dying and the current ethical issues associated with it, I would suggest the previously mentioned book, How We Die. For those interested in classic spooky tales on the subject, I'd suggest a collection of the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe.
It seems that there was a spell of cataleptic-type episodes which (like the syndrome of fainting after emotional shocks) for a while was a way people showed emotional distress physically; it may be that they were at some risk for being thought dead prematurely, and Bondeson shows that the fear of being buried alive was not completely without foundation. There are cases of people, even recently, medically certified as dead, who lived on; at special risk are those who have been chilled to a low temperature or who have taken overdoses of different medicines. The centuries of fear of burying people alive, however, simply faded, undoubtedly because of increasing trust in medical evaluations. There were organizations devoted to the prevention of the horrors of being buried alive, but these were often allied with other cranky groups like the spiritualists, and they wilted after 1900. True to its subtitle, this entertaining book is a "terrifying history," but it is a history of terrifying previous generations, mostly unnecessarily. Premature burial did have some slight influence on medical practice, and considerable influence in literature (especially Poe), but its chief effect has been to act as yet another bogeyman. We have outgrown this bogey, which makes Bondeson's book all that much more fun to read.