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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 [via]