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Nicole C. Salomone, When the “Dead” Rose in Britain: Premature Burial and the Misdiagnosis of Death During the Enlightenment
Jefferson, NC, McFarland & Company, Inc, 2022
Reviewer: Alan Lippman / August 1, 2022
In December 2013, Jahi McMath, a teenage girl, underwent a surgical procedure in California, following which she developed complications and was declared brain dead; a Death Certificate was issued. The family would not accept this outcome and arranged for Jahi to be transferred (on life support) to New Jersey, which is the only state with a law requiring hospitals to accommodate patients whose families do not accept a determination of brain death on religious grounds. Jahi remained on life support for another four and a half years, finally succumbing, in June 2018; the new Death Certificate listed liver failure as the cause.
The McMath case raised fundamental issues regarding what criteria constitute “life” and when it is—and under what circumstances—that death supersedes life. In today’s world, a salient consideration is the appropriate time to harvest organs for transplantation. In the past, and throughout human history, a principal concern was the potential for a misdiagnosis of death, leading to the horror of a premature burial.
Nicole Salomone has performed a scholarly, exhaustive, and arguably unique study of misdiagnosed death in eighteenth century Britain. But, beyond merely recounting anecdotal accounts of situations said to have led to premature burial, the author grounds her findings in a thorough appreciation of the medical and historical context and explores the phenomenon of what she terms “premature repercussions,” meaning the numerous ways to describe what happens to a person who has been misdiagnosed as dead.
Further, the author examines the intersection of science and superstition and addresses the social consequences of misdiagnosed death, drawing a distinction between “apparent death” and “absolute death.” Finally, she relates these observations to the vast vampire literature of the Romantic and Victorian eras.
The scholarly nature of Salomone’s work is supported by an extensive appendix listing all the primary and secondary sources consulted in compiling and analyzing some 200 cases of misdiagnosed death. This material is supplemented with extensive chapter notes and a wide-ranging bibliography. Despite the book’s academic and intellectual qualities, it has been written in an appealing manner that draws the reader’s interest. Moreover, the credibility of this work is boosted by the statement, “This book has undergone peer review,” appearing on the title page.
Having now completed her first book, Salomone plans to continue PhD studies at the University of Leicester! She is surely off to a great start.
Alan J. Lippman, MD
August 1, 2022