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Focusing on the Exception to the Rule for a Time: On the Border Between Life and Death in a Case of Scheintod in 1833

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This article reconstructs the social impact and consequences of Scheintod, literally translated as “apparent death”. The term arose in the German-speaking states at the end of the eighteenth century and served to observe more closely the border between life and death. The article looks at the historical actors, cultural practices and material manifestations involved in a case of Scheintod dating back to the year 1833 in the German province of Westphalia. After witnessing a young man’s three-week state of unconsciousness, a local physician initiated the building of a Leichenhaus as a place to observe the border between life and death. Calling the comatose state Scheintod was embedded in a specific natural philosophy prevalent during the late Enlightenment in the German lands. The case occurred in 1833, on the periphery of academic centres and hubs, where the natural philosophy of the late Enlightenment was still alive. As rare and unusual incidents became crucial for examining the border between life and death, this case illustrates the continuities and discontinuities of the period in determining the time of death, following funeral customs, and caring for the dead. It also serves as a magnifier through which general problems with death in the modern age following the Enlightenment became pronounced: death was highly individualized and its meaning was defined by the feelings and relations of the modern subject.

Affiliations: 1: German Council of Science and Humanities, Head Office, Germany, Email:, URL:


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