at least they're quiet:
spending time with the dead

Buried Alive
Jan Bondeson
(Norton, 256 pages)
buried alive cover
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The Mummy Congress
Heather Pringle
(Viking Penguin, 342 pages)
the mummy congress cover
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Death, said Francis Bacon, is as fearful to adults as the dark is to a child. “And as that natural fear in children is increased with tales, so is the other.” In that spirit, books about death are probably as perennially popular as books about love, food, or money. 

While it’s true, as Bacon said, that death fills nearly every sane person with terror, it also holds an abiding fascination, and we’ve all attempted, from time to time, to stare it in the face, in murder mysteries and horror movies, in tales of war and atrocity, and in popular cable television shows predicated on little more than gruesome emergency room dramas featuring, as stars, living hearts pumping wetly and desperately in open, blood-washed chest cavities.

Stories about ghosts and vampires are almost prehistoric scraps of myth, kept alive by the reasonable human wish that the dead should stay dead, and an almost primitive fear that they might not. Buried Alive is a different kind of story about the undead, a history of popular myths concerning unfortunate souls interred while still alive, a nightmare that seems to have taken hold of the European popular mind several times, subsiding only in the last century. Imagine Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” as giddy non-fiction.

Jan Bondeson, a doctor of experimental medicine, lets a playfully morbid mind run pleasantly amok in this brief and entertaining book. The illustrations, of “safety coffins”, plans for “waiting mortuaries”, and devices for administering smoke enemas to dubious cadavers, are all from his private collection. He traces the mythic history of the prematurely entombed from the late middle ages through the long upward progress of medical science, as doctors slowly freed themselves from the flawed physic of Aristotle through Paracelsus, to the critical debates over precisely what constituted vital signs in the apparently deceased.

In amongst the welter of late 18th-century reform movements - against slavery, serfdom, and monarchy - rose an equally heartfelt movement to guard against premature internment, fanned by pamphlets and books full of questionable science and much unsupported anecdote, insisting that fully as many as a third of all burials were of living persons. Germany was afflicted hardest, and the leichenhäus, or “waiting mortuary”, began to spring up in cities like Munich and Weimar, where attendants sat waiting for telltale systems of pulleys and bells to announce the revival of the corpses under their charge, the dead lying for up to a week on pallets garlanded with strong-smelling bouquets to (barely) mask the smell of putrefaction.

Those of strong stomach will find much useful information on the process of decay in Bondeson’s book, as well as Vancouver journalist Heather Pringle’s lively - in spite of its subject - book on mummies. Pringle begins her book at the Third World Congress of Mummy Studies, held in Arica, Peru, a notably unglamorous spot on the Pacific coast notable mainly for its proximity to a vast, arid mountain plain renowned for its wealth of preserved Precolumbian corpses.

The cast of obsessives Pringle meets at the congress act as her tour guides through the land of the dead, and she jets all over the world to watch a pathologist rip open mummy wrappings with a swiss army knife in a makeshift morgue in the Egyptian desert, to ponder the “uncorrupted” bodies of saints, and to talk to the men and women in charge of keeping Lenin preserved in his mausoleum on Red Square. 

Along the way, she explores the political significance of the preserved dead. Recently, Nazi ideologues tried to use mummies to prove the existence of an ancient, aryan “master race”. Before that, anti-abolitionists tried to use them to demonstrate the historical and genetic legitimacy of slavery. Today, mummies found in the Americas and in China are suggesting inconvenient flaws in venerable theories of aboriginal migration and culture, as the living try to lay claim to - or disown - the dead.

In both books, we learn a lot about the action of enzymes in cellular destabilization (also known as “rot”) and the great skill shown both by ancient societies and nature in preserving dead bodies. Both books will leave you with indelible images, such as long-dead children with faces still flush, cheeks plump with baby fat, and the bodies of kings, bloated with gas and exploding on their biers as they lie in state. Death, it seems, is both perverse and wise, rewarding the obscure with a kind of eternal life, and reminding us that even the mighty are little more than overheated bags of water and bile.

©2001, 2002 Rick McGinnis