Readers of Edgar Allan Poe's tales -- just think of The Premature Burial -- may comfort themselves with the notion that Poe must have exaggerated: surely people of the 1800s could not have been at risk of being buried alive? But such stories filled medical journals as well as fiction, and fear in the populace was high. It was speculated, from the number of skeletons found in horrific, contorted positions inside their coffins, that ten out of every one hundred people were buried before they were dead.
In the extensively illustrated Buried Alive. Jan Bondeson explores the medicine, folklore, history, and literature of Europe and the United States to uncover why such fears arose, and whether they were warranted. He looks at the bizarre nineteenth-century security coffins with bellropes or escape hatches, and the macabre waiting mortuaries for decaying corpses. Finally, he questions whether our criteria for determining if someone is dead today are truly reliable.