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.

a composite animal with the head of a crocodile, the body of a lion and the rear legs of a hippopotamus. These were the three largest “man-eating” animals known to the ancient Egyptians.

In the painting below, the deceased (dressed in white, indicating his purity) witnesses the weighing ceremony. He holds the hand of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification who accompanies the deceased into the afterlife. Here Anubis also performs the weighing ceremony. Recording the results at right is Thoth, the ibis-headed scribe god; and at the bottom sits Ammit who hopes the heart outweighs the feather.

The weighing of the heart ceremony
The weighing of the heart ceremony (Credit: source)

Wrapping Up

Back in the corporeal world, after the embalmers removed the internal organs, they stuffed the body cavity with spices, myrrh and packets of cedar shavings, all of which protected it from bacterial growth. The cedar also gave the desiccated body a more rounded, human shape. Then the wrapping process began.

Hundreds of yards of linen were fashioned into strips that wrapped around the body creating six layers of covering. Each finger and toe was individually wrapped, as was each arm and leg. Between each layer, the embalmers placed amulets, or small charms to protect the deceased from evil spirits. Then they tied together the arms and legs, and more linen bandages swathed the entire body.

At every step, the linen was painted with a natural resin that glued the layers together. Over time, chemical changes caused the resin to turn black. Early archeologists believed this resin to be bitumen, a tar-like substance thought to have healing capabilities. The Persian translation of bitumen is mumia, which is where “mummy” comes from.

Finally, a mask made of cartonnage was placed on the head. Similar to papier mâché, strips of fiber or papyrus were glued together with resin. The resulting mask could be molded to the shape of the mummified head and then, when hardened, painted 

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