It's possible that being buried alive is not something you worry about. You may allot more of your fear time to public speaking or flying or impotence. However, it is safe to predict that after you read Jan Bondeson's new book the thought of being buried alive will become your primal fear. This reviewer has become quite claustrophobic, and you couldn't possibly force him into a cave, or even a tanning bed.

Buried Alive is a curious work. Jan Bondeson is a physician specializing in rheumatology and internal medicine at a research institution in London. He is also a historian of the quirky byways of medicine and related fields. His thoughtful and entertaining previous book was A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities: A Compendium of the Odd, the Bizarre, and the Unexpected. The subtitle applies equally well to the new book.

Apparently Bondeson has read everything in the world. For Buried Alive he draws upon history, folklore, movies, fiction, poetry, drama. In earlier times, before the precise equipment of our own day, there was considerable controversy over how to determine if someone was, like the Wicked Witch of the East, "really most sincerely dead." (Well, except when death was obvious in a case of beheading, for example.) Generations were horrified by tales of exhumations revealing the supposedly dead frozen in the act of clawing at the coffin lid. Bondeson recounts the mortuaries that actually advertised alarms in their vaults to alert them to any new arrival who turned out to be still alive.

The anecdotes here are priceless. Hans Christian Andersen lived in terror of awaking inside a coffin and actually carried with him a card that proclaimed I AM NOT REALLY DEAD. Alfred Nobel insisted that special measures be taken to ensure that he really had succumbed to the final antagonist. As always, the arts best reveal our nightmares. The supreme fictional take on this bizarre idea is Edgar Allan Poe's "The Premature Burial." It has inspired a number of films, including one by Roger Corman. Wilkie Collins, of The Moonstone fame, wrote a hilariously campy buried-alive saga. Bondeson even finds a buried-alive story by Cornell Woolrich, the man who wrote Rear Window. On this theme, the horrific Dutch film Spoorlos was remade in the U.S. with, naturally, a tacked-on happy ending. Bondeson wraps up Buried Alive with the minimal evidence that many people were actually buried alive and looks at whether it happens nowadays. And he includes a perfect anonymous limerick: There was a young man at Nunhead, Who awoke in a coffin of lead; "It is cosy enough," He remarked in a huff, "But I wasn't aware I was dead."

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