Buried Alive by Jan Bonderson: the perfect bedtime read

Fellow Midnight Society member Jenna’s post on Security Coffins had me pawing through my bookshelf to find a book I’d bought a few years ago for story research (if that makes you think my library is questionable, you should see my browser history…).

Buried Alive by Jan Bonderson
The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear

Funny thing is, on the jacket flap, it’s also touted as “an engrossing and witty history” that “deserves a place on every bedside table in America”.

Sounds good to me…but I have a feeling not every one would agree with that suggestion 🙂

Anyway…the book itself is a fascinating read. It covers a variety of topics related to being buried alive, from medicine to folklore, history and literature.

SECURITY COFFINS

Just as Jenna touched on the topic of security coffins, Buried Alive features the strange devices in a decent chunk of the book. The coffins were constructed with a window for light; an airhole to prevent suffocation; a lid with a lock & key mechanism; and even a pocket was included on the burial shroud to hold two keys – one for the coffin lid and one for the vault door.

WAITING MORTUARIES

Another section of the book touches on so-called “hospitals for the dead“.

In 1787, French doctor Francois Thierry put forth a proposal for special “waiting mortuaries” which he believed should receive the recently deceased. His invention sprang from the belief that most people didn’t die until some time after the official signs of death.

He opened an elaborate one of these mortuaries, called a Leichenhaus, in Munich, which included a unique way of detecting any potential revivals. Strings from the fingers and toes of the deceased were connected to a harmonium, a type of pump organ. Every day, the attendant played the organ to demonstrate it worked properly. The only problem? As the bodies swelled and shifted during putrefaction, they often set off a ghastly symphony from the corpse chambers. Not exactly a job for the skittish, huh?

LITERARY DEPICTIONS OF BEING BURIED ALIVE

One of my favorite sections details a number of literary depictions of premature burials. There is much talk of Edgar Allan Poe’s fascination with the subject and his various works, including The Premature Burial, The Cask of Amontillado and The Fall of the House of Usher.

But the icing on the cake was the illustrations for Poe’s works included in the book.

Illustration for Poe’s “The Premature Burial”, by Harry Clarke

Illustration for The Fall of the House of Usher by Alfred Kabin

Although much of the content might seem morbid or taboo to talk about, it offers a unique glimpse into the topic of death. Buried Alive also shows different ways people choose to deal with the topic – from elaborate constructions to allay the fears of those who fear their end of days, and those who choose to face the topic head on and work out their fascination in an artistic way.

So, remember, when you finally turn up your toes that last time, it may not necessarily happen six feet under.

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