There’s no doubt death discomforts the living. A long history of adaptation for survival has assured we are repelled by the sight and smell of a rotting corpse, especially the corpse of human being. We are disturbed by possible threats to our well-being and reminded of our ultimate mortality. We are heartbroken at the loss of friends and family, and at the horrible absence a corpse represents.
Through the ages, we have developed countless ways of dealing with the dead. We have burned them on funeral pyres and interred them in lofty tombs. We have buried them in the ground and shelved them in catacombs. We have drowned them in the sea and left them on mountaintops for scavengers to pick clean their bones. Perhaps none is more fascinating than mummification, when the flesh of the living is preserved in death through the ages. The word “mummy” come from the Arabic word for bitumen, thought to be used in some Egyptian mummies, but different types of mummies exist from around the world.
To create a mummy the process of decay must be halted, usually though desiccation, but sometimes through chemicals, cold temperatures, or submersion in an anaerobic fluid. While many cultures deliberately mummify the dead, many mummies are a product of accidental conditions. In either case, once the body has stabilized, if the environment is favorable, a mummy may remain intact for thousands of years.
When decay ceases, and the grief of the living has passed into history, a strange beauty remains in the dead. You can sense this beauty gazing upon an ancient mummy. It’s difficult to put into words. This silent face … this still flesh … stirs thoughts of life as much as death, of hopes and dreams, of love and loss and longing. The beauty of this singular person, who walked the earth so long ago, is still here, like a shadow cast forward through time.
Ancient Egyptian culture flourished for 3000 years. An estimated 70 million people were mummified and entombed in the burning sands. For all that time, tombs have been broken into, desecrated, and robbed for the valuables they contained. In the 18th and 19th century, there thrived an international market for mummies as souvenirs and curiosities, and to be ground up and used in paints and medicine. They were even used as fuel for the fire on cold desert nights when wood was scarce.
Thankfully, these practices have ended, and mummies today, from Egypt and around the world, are being treated with care and respect. They are meticulously preserved and studied for the wealth of scientific and historical information they contain. And they are admired by those with an imagination for history, horror, and yes, beauty.
I highly recommend checking out Kenneth Garrett’s stunning photographs of the mummies of Tutankhamun’s family from a 2010 National Geographic article.
Also, this amazing Ming Dynasty wet mummy found recently in China. This appears to be an accidental mummy.
If you’re in the Portland area there are a few weeks left to see the Mummies of the World exhibit at OMSI. Well worth the visit!