Bondeson: Buried Alive

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Jan Bondeson, Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear. New York : W.W. Norton & Company, 2001. 320 pages.

I found this book fascinating and informative and generally easy to read, but it is the sort of thing that would appeal to my eccentric tastes anyway. One should note that it is certainly a comprehensive and credible work concerning the topic, somewhere between popular and academic in style but marketed in shopping-mall bookstores.

Some things continue to puzzle me after closing the book on the last page. These are puzzlements not about the book, but about the human behavior it describes.

The most puzzling that I found occurred during the height of the fear-of-premature-burial anxiety that seized Germany and France (mostly) roughly between 1750--1850. It was a time that saw a great deal of development in two main areas: "safety caskets" and "waiting mortuaries".

Safety caskets were designed with various additions like breathing tubes, little bells to ring, hammers to break them open, or extra food, all just in case the unthinkable should happen. What is not clear is why anyone buying one believed that someone might be wandering their cemetery at just the right time to hear their feeble cries.

Waiting mortuaries were popular mostly in Germany. These were buildings where corpses were put for a few days until putrefaction became obvious and death assured. Those in the waiting mortuaries usually had strings attached to toes and fingers so that bells would ring should they twitch so that assistance might rush in. At the time, the onset of decay was considered the most reliable -- really, the only reliable sign of death. Figuring out when someone is dead is not so easy as it sounds. This period saw several prizes offered on the continent for someone to come up with a reliable, quick indicator of death. The first crude stethoscopes were just appearing and the winning idea was the lack of a heartbeat, although this was not always unambiguous and took some time to win over adherents. In modern times, "brain death" is usually the determinant.

Neither of these, though, is what troubles me. Many people of the time, fearing premature burial, put special provisions in their wills thereby hoping to avoid a ghastly and terrifying fate. What surprised me was the nature of these provisions and what they said about the specific fear. I would have thought the fear would be fear of death, of being buried when one still had days left. However, it seems that the real fear was waking up inside a buried coffin and "dying again".

The distinction? Rather than specifying that their presumed corpses should be kept safely above ground until it was clear that they were actually corpses, many people specified things like:

  • opening their arteries so that all blood might drain out;
  • plunging a long needle into their heart; and/or
  • cutting off their heads.

In other words, they asked that steps be taken that would make it absolutely certain that they were dead, rather than possibly alive and merely suffering from der Scheintod (the "death trance"). In other words: they were so afraid of being buried alive that they insisted on being definitively killed before burial.

I find that incomprehensible, but maybe not so surprising.

-- Notes by JNS

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