How Do Mummies Become Mummies?

By Howard J. Bennett

When I was 9-years-old, I decided to scare my parents. I hid in my bedroom and took everything off but my underpants. I then wrapped myself from head to toe in white toilet paper. After 10 minutes, the Mummy of Massapequa (New York) was born.

Using my spookiest moan, I walked straight-armed and stiff-legged into the living room. It would have worked except for one small problem: the toilet paper was falling off by the time I reached my destination.

Clearly, the technique I used paled in comparison to what the ancient Egyptians did thousands of years ago. Like other cultures, the ancient Egyptians believed in an afterlife. However, unlike other cultures, they believed preserving the body was necessary to keep the soul alive.

Although mummification practices changed over the centuries, the basic process remained the same.

1. The body was taken to a purification tent and cleansed. A cut was made on the left side of the body so the liver, stomach, lungs and intestines could be removed and saved. The brain was removed and thrown away. (Ancient Egyptians did not think the brain was very important.) The heart was left in place so Anubis, an Egyptian god, would be able to judge the goodness of the deceased by weighing his heart in the underworld.

2. The removed organs and body were dried out and preserved with spices, oils and types of salt. Depending on the time period, the organs were wrapped in linen and returned to the body or placed in special pottery jars to protect them until they could be reunited with the deceased in the afterlife. The body was stuffed with rags, sawdust and other material to give it a lifelike appearance and then sewn up. This process took about 40 days.

3. The body was wrapped in many layers of white linen bandages. Amulets (kind of like charms) were placed within layers to protect the deceased from evil. Resin was used to give the linen strength. When the wrapping was complete, the mummy was covered in a linen shroud. This process took about 15 days.

4. Death masks were placed on the mummies of the rich and powerful. (The most famous death mask belonged to King Tutankhamen.) The mummy was placed in as many as three wooden coffins, like nesting dolls, before being placed in a stone coffin known as a sarcophagus.

5. The mummy was taken to a tomb for burial as mourners followed along carrying food and objects the deceased would need in the afterlife.

Bonus Fact: Most resources state that the brain was removed by poking a metal rod up the corpse’s nose and pulling it out. This is partly true. Embalmers did use metal rods and brains were removed through the nose, however, they weren’t “pulled out.” The reason for this is because the brain gets pretty squishy after death and isn’t tough enough to be pulled through any opening let alone a corpse’s nose. That means the embalmer either scooped it out piece-by-piece or stirred things up with the rod and manipulated the head so the liquefied brain oozed out of the nostrils.


© 2012 Howard J. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.
(First published in the Washington Post 4/3/11.)

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