The Egyptian mummy is one of the powerful symbols of the past that seemingly needs no introduction. Thousands flock to Cairo every year to witness the earthly remains of the boy-king Tutankhamun and millions enjoyed, or shuddered, to behold the mummy come back to life in such classic films as the 1932 film The Mummy and later horror flicks set in Ancient Egypt like the Mummy film franchise lead by Stephen Sommers.
The people of ancient Egypt believed that the Ka, or the soul, departs from the body and will return to it in the life to come. For this reason, explains professor Bob Brier in his Ancient Egypt course which is part of the Great Course Series, the famous pyramids had openings the Ka could depart from and return to. The urge to live beyond death was not limited to the wealthy, while not all people could enjoy a pyramid to host their remains almost anybody could afford a statue or even a small figure painted to look like them. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo is full of amazing works of art in which people are represented as they actually were. The soil of Egypt was thought to have magical qualities, which is why even when Egypt was a mighty empire they never sent people to settle outside of it, as nobody wanted to die and never have a shot of immortal life outside its borders.
Why do bodies even rot to begin with? The answer is water, of more accurately, humidity. With the end of the berating process, oxygen doesn't reach the body. Ergo cells begin to die and the inner organs leak out as various proteins begin to decompose the tissues. The feeding frenzy is open both to germs who live in the body as well as insects, animals, and germs who are attracted to a free meal. If left uninterrupted, a human body will eventually be consumed until only the naked bones remain in roughly a decade if buried without a coffin.
However, stop humidity, and you stop the process, explains Ohad Weiss from the Weizmann Institute writing for Ynet, if you can keep the body dry or destroy all germs – you've achieved your goal.
While the exact details of how the people of ancient Egypt created their mummies are unknown to us, surviving manuscripts and remaining mummies lead us to believe that the process included the removal of the brain through the nostrils. The Egyptians, unlike us, believed the heart and not the brain is where the "person" can be found, so they disposed of the brain and kept the heart and the other internal organs in special jars that were buried alongside the dead.
The body was then salted for 70 days, wrapped in shrouds, and placed in a sarcophagi, a Greek word which means the eater of flesh. The Greek word for basket, Kophinos, eventually produced the word Coffin, also used in reference to the dead.
The belief of the ancient people of Egypt that the dead are important because the Ka will eventually return to inhabit the remains is one of the reasons the people of Israel avoid means to preserve the bodies of the dead, believing that God will bring the dead back to life without any human help. While there is no strict prohibition to use a coffin, it is advised that the bottom of it will have holes to ensure the body will be in contact with the earth and so decompose.
The practice of preserving the dead was not unique to the people of Egypt, writes Weiss for Ynet, among the Chinchorro people of what is today Peru and Chile mummification was common, including nearly one third of their dead with the earliest mummy, the Acha man, dating to 7020 BC.
The Chinchorro removed all soft tissues and skin, stuffed the body with plants, and created a clay mask for the departed. They knew of special means, which we call today the black mummy technique in which the body was taken apart and rebuilt. The red mummy technique included the removal of the head and painting most of the body red. The complexity of the means employed is just as advanced as the art of the ancient Egyptians.
Extreme dryness, such as in deserts and frozen glaciers, can create mummies as well. Mummies dating to the 15th century were found in burial caves in Greenland.Bogs have such low levels of oxygen and temperature that bodies found in them are neatly preserved. When the Danish found the Tollund Man in 1950 they thought he was the victim of a murder. A victim he might have been but it took place in the 4th century, that's how well kept he looked to them. Such well-kept bodies are believed today to be those sacrificed by the ancient cultures of Europe such as the Druids in England and the Vikings.
You might think the practice is as gone as the kings of Egypt, but you'd be wrong. The people of Papua New Guinea make mummies using smoke even today. In 2008 Anthropologist Ronald Beckett of Quinnipiac University in Connecticut helped restore the mummy of Moimango. A chief who died in 1950 and was smoked and placed on a cliff overlooking the village he lead, Live Science reported.
In Buddhist culture those who seek to attain a great level of spirituality attempt Sokushinbutsu, which is the practice of becoming a mummy when one is still living while in a state of deep mediation. Only 24 such bodies are known to exist today, one of them if of Thai monk Luang Pho Daeng who died in 1973, his remains are currently on display at Wat Khunaram.
However, one doesn't have to go to Thailand to see such a feat, the body of the founder of Communism Vladimir Lenin can be seen at the Red Square mausoleum. This was done against the wishes of his widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya.
According to Israeli Taxidermist Igor Gavrielov visitors to the famous Soviet site do not view the actual body of Lenin, as it was replaced several times, Haaretz reported. "This is only known to people in the profession," he said.
Writing for Ynet, Weiss explains that Formaldehyde used to be the main compound used to preserve bodies but as it is related to a risk of cancer it is now slowly replaced by silicone in what is called Plastination.
By using Formaldehyde first and then removing it and replacing it with silicone, the body can be kept at a single posture; such a technique was used in the Body Worlds exhibition which was shown around the world, including Israel.
"Perhaps one day the veils of mystery will be opened," writes Weiss for Ynet, "and allow us a true peek into our abilities against death."