Will You Be My Mummy: Dead Bodies in Museums Raise Ethical Dilemmas

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition on ancient Egypt raises disturbing questions about the ethics of displaying dead bodies.

nostrils broke through the bone separating the nasal cavity from the brain so bits of brain tissue could be removed from the skull. Archeologists have speculated that the instrument pulverized the brain tissue into an near liquid state that drained from the nostrils when the body was turned onto its stomach. The process was a delicate operation that could easily disfigure the face (disfigurement would make it difficult for the ba to identify the body).

Next, embalmers used a piece of volcanic rock to slit open the left side of the deceased’s abdomen, which facilitated removal of the stomach, intestines, liver and lungs. These were washed with frankincense, myrrh and palm wine, then mummified with natron and stored in special canisters called canopic jars. One organ was placed in each jar and the four jars were placed near the coffin in the tomb. The jars seen below are not from Khnumhotep’s tomb but are also on display at the Met. These jars may or may not still contain the mummified organs, which only adds to the unsettling sense of sacrilege. Viewers become distinctly aware that these organs were preserved for the after-life, not the enjoyment of gawking museum-goers.

Canopic Jars of Nebsen / Senwosret, ca. 1981-1802 B.C. Egyptian, Middle Kingdom Limestone; H. ca. 40 cm The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, (MK.145) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/591294
Canopic Jars of Nebsen and Senwosret (Credit: Source)

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

Interestingly, the heart remained in the body. The ancient Egyptians believed that the heart, as the organ of reason and intelligence, could testify to the goodness of the deceased during the “weighing of the heart” ceremony. This ceremony, in which the gods determined whether the deceased was worthy of an eternal afterlife, was the ancient Egyptian equivalent of the Christian Judgment Day. During the ceremony, the deceased would confess that he or she had not committed any of 42 specified sins ranging from eavesdropping to violence.

The symbolic ritual that accompanied this “negative confession” was the weighing of the heart, where the deceased’s heart was placed on one side of an enormous scale. On the other side sat an ostrich feather, representing truth and goodness. If the heart balanced against the feather, the deceased had led a good life and could proceed into the afterlife. If the heart outweighed the feather, then the scale sunk and the heart would be devoured by Ammit,

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