Staff Pick: Buried Alive

Buried Alive

(W.W. Norton and Company)

by Jan Bondeson

In 1893, the wife of a Pennsylvania farmer died and was buried in the family graveyard. Days later, a relative told the grieving husband that the poor woman had suffered fits as a child, and he fretted that a horrible mistake had been made. To put his mind at ease, the parson unearthed the casket, so the farmer could see that his wife was indeed resting peacefully. Instead, to everyone's horror, when they raised the lid, they discovered the body was twisted face downward, the lining of the casket was ripped to shreds, and the woman had chewed off her own fingers, apparently in agony when she discovered she had been buried alive.

Or had she?

Author Jan Bondeson, a Swedish physician, takes a close look at stories like this, presenting readers with what he describes -- quite accurately -- as "the terrifying history of our most primal fear." And what he discovers, as he did in the case of the Pennsylvania farmer, is that most shocking tales of premature burial are just that -- folk tales with no basis in fact.

But Bondeson doesn't just debunk the many urban legends about people who were supposedly buried alive. He explores mankind's perverse fear of this possibility, examining in often gruesome detail, for example, the "hospitals for the dead" that opened throughout Europe in the nineteenth century. Here, dozens of corpses were laid out in neat rows, their hands and feet connected to bells, while a watchman -- who had surely one of the worst jobs in history -- sat among the decaying bodies and listened for the slightest tinkle of a bell.

Bondeson looks at the so-called "security coffins," such as the Bateson Belfry model, which featured air vents, speaking tubes, and alarm devices that could be activated by anyone who woke up inside such a thing. He traces this recurring theme throughout literature, most notably in several stories by Edgar Allen Poe, who was apparently obsessed with the idea. One of his best-known short stories, in fact, is titled "The Premature Burial."

And he explores the basic problem: Before medicine was as advanced as it is today, how did doctors ensure that patients were truly dead? Giving the supposed corpse a tobacco-smoke enema -- yes, that's right -- was just one of the more popular methods. Another technique, based on the theory that the muscles of the intestinal tract relax after death, was to use a powerful bellows to force air down the victim's windpipe, and then out through the -- well, you know. "The grotesque scene that followed can be imagined by those familiar with dead bodies," Bondeson writes in his typically wry manner, "but remains mercifully hidden to laymen."

It's an odd topic, that's for sure, but a fascinating book, though as you've probably gathered by now, not one for the faint of heart. As for me, I have no fears about being buried alive. My careful instructions to the taxidermist should take care of everything nicely.

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