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.

or gilded to represent the deceased. Paints were fashioned from natural materials, such as crushed bone or ivory (for white), charred wood (for black) and crushed minerals for colors, such as yellow (pyrite) or violet (vermillion). During the Middle Kingdom, representations of the face and body became more naturalistic as evidenced by this funerary mask on display at the Met.

Mummy Mask of an Official (Credit: source)
Mummy Mask of an Official (Credit: source)

narrow and conspicuously false beard marks a noticeable feature of Khnumhotep’s mask. The beard associated the steward with Osiris, the god of the underworld, who gave hope for a new life after death. Before the Middle Kingdom, only the pharaoh wore a false beard (like on the mask of Tutankhamen below) because he (or she—female pharaohs also wore false beards) was believed to be the living embodiment of Osiris.

A false beard on the mummy mask ensured the deceased became the god and went on to everlasting life. During the Middle Kingdom, beliefs evolved and Egyptians believed everyone possessed a soul and could be welcomed into the company of the gods after death. So, for the first time, non-royals wore Osiris’s beard.

King Tut’s Funerary Mask (Credit: source)
King Tut’s Funerary Mask (Credit: source)

Eat, Drink and Be Merry: Sustenance in the Afterlife

With the body now ready for burial, the deceased was placed in the coffin on its left side so that it faced east, toward the rising sun (the symbol of resurrection). On the outside of the coffin, corresponding to the face on the mask, artisans painted an eye panel that allowed the deceased to look out onto the world where it watched for offerings of food and wine brought by relatives. It was the responsibility of the living to bring these offerings for the rest of their lives. And once there was no longer anyone alive to bring sustenance, painted images on the sides of the coffin or the tomb walls magically transformed into life-sustaining materials, such as the meats, vegetables and fruits shown piled on the offering table.

Stela of Khety and His Wife, Henet (Credit: source)
Stela of Khety and His Wife, Henet (Credit: source)

These artifacts affirm the Ancient Egyptian view of death as a temporary interruption in a cycle of life that continued into eternity. The afterlife would look very similar to the living world, and every individual received the afterlife as a reward for leading a good life. But entry into the afterlife was not guaranteed. The dead had to negotiate a dangerous underworld 

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