Opinion: The real problem of ‘mummies’ | CNN

Editor’s note: Jason Colavito (@JasonColavito) is a writer and culture critic based in upstate New York. His writing has appeared in Esquire, The New Republic, Slate, and elsewhere. He is the author of several books, including “The Legends of the Pyramids: Myths and Misconceptions about Ancient Egypt.” The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. He read more opinions on CNN.


Mummies tend to provoke feelings of the strange because they float on an uncomfortable line between life and death, between human and object.

“I don’t know if you’ve seen that mummy,” former President Bill Clinton once quipped about a 500-year-old mummified Peruvian girl nicknamed Juanita. “But you know, if I were a single guy, I could ask that mummy out. That’s a handsome mummy.”

Objectifying mummies has long been a concern, though rarely in that way. A bigger problem is the tendency to treat mummies as objects, an exploitable commodity for industry or entertainment.

In recent years, museums have begun to change the way they talk about mummies, replacing the term “mummy” with “mummified person,” “mummified remains,” or other descriptions as a way to treat human remains with greater dignity. and respect.

The issue came to light this week when a British tabloid accused several museums of “waking up” by changing their language. As the British Museum noted in a statement to CNN, the change is not a complete ban on the word “mummy,” which is still used in the museum’s galleries.

However, a flurry of headlines online presents the changes as a “mummy” ban. Since any effort at sensibility is culture war fodder, the conversation quickly turned into a discussion of “wake up” instead of focusing on the real issue: how we should talk and whether we should show human bodies.

The display of human bodies or body parts has a long history. Sometimes it was a sign of reverence. The Incas, for example, treated the mummified bodies of their important dead as if they were alive, clothing them and offering them food.

The Catholic Church has filled cathedrals with the bodies and body parts of saints, which they consider holy relics fit for public viewing.

Other times, the display is intentionally dehumanizing. Many rulers have placed spikes on the heads of their enemies, and even in the modern era, Western countries left the decomposing bodies of executed criminals on public display as a warning and a display of power.

In English, the use of the word “mummy” to refer to a preserved human body dates back some 400 years, taken from the Latin version of an Arabic word.

But from the beginning the word was intended to put distance between the living and the dead, to turn dead humans into objects.

Before it meant a whole corpse, “mummy” was first used to describe the oils and other preservatives used to embalm Egyptian bodies.

A brisk body trade beginning in the 15th century saw thousands of mummies exported from Egypt to Europe, where they were ground up to make everything from medicine to paint to fertilizer. Many falsely believed that when consumed from a corpse, these substances had special powers.

A merchant who supplies bodies for this mummy trade is on record wondering how “Christians, with such delicate mouths, could eat the bodies of the dead.” The answer is that they didn’t really think of mummies as people.

Our language, which reflects Christian ideas of the immortal soul, traditionally recognizes at least a degree of distinction between the person and the flesh. After all, when we cremate a body, we don’t talk about the ashes as a “person undergoing cremation.”

But what does it mean to think of the body as synonymous with the person, versus thinking of the body as a container for the soul?

Perhaps one of the reasons the small change in language to describe mummification aroused so much interest is because it subtly rejects the religious view that a person’s essence resides in their soul, and instead suggests that we are nothing more than bones and tendons.

Another reason is less ethereal. Many human remains, whether skeletal or mummified, found in Western museums found their way there due to the legacy of imperialism and colonialism. Many bodies on display are those of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, or are old enough to appear culturally distinct from modern populations. They did not choose to be there.

Displays of the dead from other cultures are thus expressions of racial and cultural power dynamics, and our language reflects this. They are not “us”. Many will refer to the preserved body of an indigenous ruler as a “mummy.” But the preserved corpse on display in Moscow is usually called Vladimir Lenin, not “the mummy of a Russian leader.”

In the United States, museums, universities, and other government institutions still store more than 110,000 Native American bodies. Strong opposition is met with any attempt to repatriate the remains, often framed in terms of culture war. In the UK, the British Museum alone houses more than 6,000 human remains. The British Museum says that visitors “expect to see human remains as an element of our Museum’s exhibits.”

But should we?

Making some cosmetic changes to signage to recognize the dead as people is a good start.

But real change will only come when we honor the dead by removing them from our museums and laying them to rest as they, their descendants, and their cultures wished.


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