On Mummies, Thanatology and Rest for the Ancestors

I have had a morbid curiosity about disease, death and medicine since I was a child. My parents left me with a physicians desk reference as company oftentimes and I continued to be enamored with medicine and all the ways the body could possibly go wrong. It was a strange way of coping with having chronically ill parents.  And even then as a young child: I was fascinated with mummies and skeletons and bones. I loved  dinosaurs and archaeology and the pharaohs of old. 

However, as I grew older, I grew very aware of a simple fact: the bodies I looked at with such wonder and awe were once people like me. And with that empathy and understanding, I came to realize that maybe, just maybe; this is not how the people I saw with reverence and curiosity through thick glass wanted to spend their eternity. 

With that in mind, I’d like to talk about death studies, mummies and how to let our ancestors rest.

It started with Body Worlds- an exhibit I saw when I was too young but really stirred me to curiosity about what could be done with a human body upon their death. When I saw the posed bodies on horses, flayed, open, displayed: I began to wonder if this is what they wanted. Did the pregnant woman and her lost child want this? Did the man want to be on a mounted horse? I had assumed the answer was yes because I understood bodies donated to science but even as a young one I had curiosity about the ethics of displaying bodies in such a fascinating way, especially considering that (and I know this will likely sound classist) that not everyone can appreciate them in the same way. While I was there, a child nearly knocked over a plastinated heart and to this day I think about that and how horrible that could have gone.  

I do know that some people are fine with being displayed, like Jeremy Bentham. Some signed over their bodies willingly to be displayed. Some want to be studied. Others had their bodies taken and disrespected. Others have been displayed like props and some are very far from their homes. 

Which brings me to a contentious point: mummies. Now, I have loved Egypt and its pharaohs since I was a little one and I love seeing the old bodies of those most famous. I got to see King Tut when he visited Dallas. I saw Hapshephut and was reminded of the power of a woman. I have long respected the kings and queens of old. But what are they doing in Texas? Why are there so many so far away from their homes? Would Tut want to be away from his mother? Did he want to be examined? Is this what he hoped the afterlife would be; being in the back of a truck on his way to Dallas?

Well, many of these mummies likely didn’t want this. As a culture, the West has taken many mummies for many centuries. Some were eaten as powder. Some unwrapped at parties. Others placed in museums as they were stolen from their eternal resting places. 

Egypt has asked for its mummies back. To be fair, many places have asked for their artifacts back. And not judge Egypt. Families, cultures, people have asked for their ancestors back; to let them have peace, to let them rest. And for the most part, in modern history, museums have capitulated. But that has been a long-fought battle and there are still people on display that likely wouldn’t want to be displayed. 

It leaves people like me in a curious place; burdened with the knowledge that the mummies I love to study are hostages and foreigners in eternal suspended animation to be gawked at by the masses. What am I to do?

A word echoed in my mind as I continued to weigh my options and that word is intentionality. I strive to respect any body I see. I strive to understand that every mummy, every plastinated corpse, every organ in a jar was once someone. But there is such a fine line between awe and lack of seriousness. I’m not here to gatekeep the world of academia and thanatology but I do think there is something to be sad about who is viewing some of these materials. I think some young children may be best kept at home: unless you have a little deathling but then it is your job as guardian to provide the much needed context around what they are viewing. 

I also think reverence also matters a great deal when it comes to the display of bodies. Glass I think does a great deal to put distance and importance on what was once a living person. I also think that whatever signage and notes around the body or artifact are very important: sensationalism starts with sensational copy and that is a choice made by museums and their marketing teams. 

There is also something to be said about technology. We have more access than ever to be able to view these bodies from miles away using 3D models and CT scans and high-res photography. Seeing inside of King Tut does not have to mean seeing King Tut. Otzi is a great example of this, I have seen his body plenty of times in documentaries and the samples and photos taken of him help give us a very detailed picture of his last moments and his icy death but we can’t remove him from his ice coffin: so we study him in photos. 

It’s been difficult recently to reconcile my love of mummies and of the bodies of old with the ethics behind displaying bodies. There are just so many cases of people being disrespected that it almost sours the whole thing: but what saves it are enthusiastic and empathetic museum curators and archaeologists who are doing their best to ensure that things are done right. There’s also been public outcry and legislation that has helped and indigenous people  have been increasingly vocal about wanting their dead back. 

We all die and we all deserve a dignified burial. For some, that does mean going on display; for others that means being laid to rest quietly in the ground. But it’s important to let our ancestors rest: it’s the least we can do.