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Books, Journals, New Media
June 6, 2001

HistoryBuried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear

Author Affiliations

Harriet S.MeyerMD, Contributing EditorDavid H.MorseMS, Journal Review EditorRobertHoganMD, adviser for new media


Not Available


Copyright 2001 American Medical Association. All Rights Reserved. Applicable FARS/DFARS Restrictions Apply to Government Use.2001American Medical Association


by Jan Bondeson, 308 pp, with illus, $23.95, ISBN 0-393-04906, New York, NY, WW Norton & Co, 2001.

JAMA. 2001;285(21):2789. doi:10.1001/jama.285.21.2789-JBK0606-4-1

When one's heart, lungs, and brain stop functioning, irreversibly, then one is dead. When all three are functioning normally, even if not optimally, then one is alive. Between these two states, things can get blurry, and being dead depends on the particular criteria for death. Buried Alive is a niche history of the definition of death.

Taphophobia, the exaggerated fear of being buried alive, would seem a natural outgrowth of shaky criteria for death. For most of recorded history, physicians have not been involved in pronouncing a person dead; instead, the task fell to family, friends, or the odd passerby. Confusion might occur with trauma (usually combat), hysterical conversion reaction simulating death, and epidemic disease, in which the need for hasty burial often figured.

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