I’ve been fascinated with mummies since I was about nine. These husks of a former life, reamed, cleaned and packed were then embalmed, smeared with unguents, wrapped in yards of cotton and placed in several sarcophagi. They were sent well prepared into the next life with canopic jars for all the important organs, gold and jewels and food. What a amazing world. And some of those mummies, richer in death than you or I could be in life, continued to grow nails or hair.
Is it any wonder that these bodies, preserved for millennia, fostered a whole host of reanimated mummy movies? Disturb the grave, steal from the dead and they will come back to exact their curse upon your person. And they, like zombies, will be powerful, single-minded and unstoppable. There was a more romantic mummy in Anne Rice’s The Mummy but on whole they are unnatural forces of death or evil that try to destroy the powers of life.
It is that sense of disturbing the dead that spawned so many mummy movies, which is also the heart and soul of many belief systems. Most spiritual paths indicate that there is a transmigration of the soul at the time of death, that in fact we leave the corporeal vessel that can serve us no longer and that our ethereal, quintessential selves move on to another state of being. Whether that is heaven, reincarnation, or a great unknown depends on the belief.
So it is interesting that in all these belief systems, which of course have funerary customs for the dead, that there is sometimes more concern placed on the decaying corporeal remains than on the soul’s departing. Many people agree that the soul is what matters, that that person no longer inhabits the fleshy shell, so then why do we place so much emotion into something that no longer resembles the person we knew?
We see this over and over again, where someone was cremated but the family received the wrong ashes. That a nation’s people died maybe a century ago and for whatever reason the remains are in another country (or museum) and great efforts are made to get those people back. But it’s not a person any longer; what defines “person” is gone. It’s as if we all live a two-faced belief, one where we agree the soul is what matters and the other in which we cannot let the material aspects go, no matter whether they’re rotted, embalmed, ashes or missing.
Does the respect and superstition for the remnants of the dead extend only as long as there is someone who cares? Most likely, yes. It may be family or friends, or in some cases a nation asking for a great hero, artist or politician’s body to be returned. It might be an ancestral thing or something to do with spirituality. But how far back should such a re-appropriation of remains go? Should the primitive man found in an iceflow before there were nations be claimed by one? Should he be buried with dignity? Should he be used in research? Which religion presides over his burial (or cremation) when none existed when he was alive?
Sometimes such requests for very ancient remains have little to do with sentiment and emotion. Sometimes they are levers for politics whether to further a nation’s claim or to purport ongoing indiginities. (No one has said a thing about the two dried out husks that reside in the curio shop on the wharves of Seattle.) It’s hard to say what is right when you think of the millions (maybe billions) of dead over millions of years (yes, humans have been roaming the earth for a very long time). Not everyone is claimed or cared about and really, we’re talking about a husk of old flesh here. Don’t get me wrong. I live this conundrum too, believing that which made the person human and real dissipates at death.Yet I have a reliquary necklace with some ashes of a dead friend in it, even though I know that his soul does not reside there.
Which brings me from mummies to bog people. Bogs have a unique chemical balance that preserves organic materials far better than anything else. People who have died in bogs turn leathery, whereas most bodies will decay to just the bones. Even their fingerprints are noticeable, as well as the foods in their stomachs and intestines still being discernible. Clothing decays fast under most conditions but the bogs preserve fabrics indicating that these early peoples wore leather and woven wool. All of these things can tell us how people lived, what level their culture was at, what techniques they had and how they died.
Denmark has some of the most interesting historical bogs where clothing and bodies have been found. As well, the Netherlands, England and other places in northern Europe have bogs that hold snippets of history. A few years ago (2004) the Glenbow Museum in Calgary exhibited “The Mysterious Bog People.” I had a chance to see it where the lighting was low, but bright enough on the bodies. There were displays of jewellery and tools and reconstructed fabric from the original finds. Also, there were reconstructions of the heads of some of the bodies. The exhibit talked about where they’d been found, when they had lived, how old they were and what had probably happened to each person.
As with most bog finds, many people died violent deaths, stabbed or strangled or possibly drowned. It may be that they were robbed or that they were sacrificed in various rituals. In most cases their lives were cut short in a brutal and sudden way. After I saw the exhibit and mentioned it to someone she asked if it was right because it didn’t show respect for the dead. I found this odd as I knew her belief was the same as many people’s, that the soul leaves the body and the body nourishes the earth in an endless cycle. So I said, in fact they had gained more respect than they had in death, lying in a bog. They died a brutal death and were forgotten. Here they were remembered and we learned something of who they might have been. And that the exhibit as a whole wasn’t a spectacle so much as educational and even reverent in treating the people of long ago.
It is an interesting conundrum we have in many aspects of our lives. We know that it is love and relationships that matter most. Yet we continually grab and procure more goods. Many of us believe the soul leaves the body and that part is the person, yet we hang on to the rotting remains. I’m not sure why we do this, if perhaps we need something tangible to trigger our memories and sentiments, but it is an intriguing aspect of human customs. And it is through funerary customs that anthropologists can chart when civilization began.