(The Capuchin catacombs)
In the 19th century, scientists and performers alike would publically unwrap mummified remains to much fascination and horror. It may seem macabre but I bet you’ve all gawked at a mummy or two
in a museum. This practice of displaying mummies dates back to the 16th century and they remain
objects of fascination to this day.
Mummies offer more than just spectacle, however. Analysis of remains can offer knowledge of the
spiritual practices, genealogy or even diet of those mummified. But how were these mummies created?
Oddly, mummification probably arose by accident. In Chile, where many have been found, the arid
environment favours natural mummification, burying bodies in the dry, hot earth would have quickly
dehydrated them. But for some cultures it was a more deliberate and elaborate process. We’ve all heard how the ancient Egyptians would scramble up the brain with a hook and pull it out through the nose, but there was more to it that. All of the internal organs were removed as these would have been the first things to decompose. The bodies were then packed with natron (a baking soda/ash mix) which would dry them out before being wrapped in linen and coated in resin. And tada! A classic horror movie monster is created.
Although talk of mummies tends to conjure up this image of ancient Egypt, there were many more cultures that took part in this practice.
The oldest mummies ever to be discovered predate the Egyptians by up to 2000 years. They come from the Chinchorro culture of South America (in what is now Chile/Peru). Like the Egyptians, the Chinchorro removed the internal organs of the deceased but then replaced them with vegetable matter or animal hair. They would also remove the skin and replace it with clay. What really sets them apart from other cultures that performed mummification is that all members of society went through the process, not just those wealthy and powerful (i.e. those Egyptians buried in sarcophaguses with their riches and servants).
A Chinchorro mummy (left) and a successful Sokushinbutsu monk (right).
Possibly the most extreme and unusual example of the art of mummification are the Sokushinbutsu. Between the 11th and 19th century in Northern Japan, Shingon Buddhist monks would eat nothing but berries and nuts for 1000 days in order to lose fat, followed by 1000 days of consuming only bark and roots to remove moister from the body. After drinking a poisonous tea that would make it more difficult for bacteria to decompose the body, the monks would seal themselves in a stone tomb, their only connection to the outside a bell which they would ring to indicate they were still alive (until they weren’t). Those that succeeded in self-mummification process were called Sokushinbutsu. Hundreds attempted the process but only 24 successes have been discovered to date.
Monks of all cultures have partaken in mummification, though most wait until after death. The Capuchin catacombs in Sicily were originally intended only for friar monks but eventually became a status symbol and now contain over 1252 mummies. One of the last corpses to be admitted to the catacombs was that of Rosalia Lombardo, a two year old who died of pneumonia. X-rays have shown her organs are still remarkably intact. Most of the corpses in the catacombs went through “natural” mummification (organs removed, stuffed, dehydrated) but some, like Rosalia, were embalmed, using modern chemicals. If you’re not easily frightened (or love to be scared), the catacombs are well worth a visit.
It is generally thought that mummification is a deeply spiritual process. That’s certainly the case of the Sokushinbutsu, who did not view their slow death as suicide but as an ultimate form of
enlightenment. For the Egyptians it was not about preservation of the body at all, but creation of a
new one for the afterlife. There are many reasons and methods cultures had for mummifying their
dead, but what’s true of them all is they they’ll age much more gracefully than the rest of us.