Opinion | Death lessons from a mummy
The fate of Ramesses the Great settled an important question in the writer’s mind
Jaipur’s Albert Hall Museum was flooded in mid-August, requiring the evacuation of an Egyptian mummy that is among its prize exhibits. Important documents and artefacts were damaged but luckily, the 2,300 year-old mummy, one of six in India, was lifted out of its display box in time and moved to higher ground.
The monsoon is conservation’s scourge. Describing India’s weather in his memoirs, the Mughal emperor Babur wrote, “During the rainy season, the weather is unusually good when the rain ceases.... The one drawback is that the air is too humid…. Bows cannot be used to shoot or they are ruined. Armour, books, bedding and textiles are also affected. Buildings do not last long either."
Mummification generally demands aridity, though tissue can be protected by the acidic water of bogs and by chilly permafrost. Bodies preserved for millennia are found mainly in the world’s driest regions, places like the Sahara, Atacama and Taklamakan deserts. They are found, above all, in Egypt, where the practice of mummification reached a peak of sophistication. The Egyptians mummified not just kings and high-ranking officials but millions of cats, dogs, ibises, cobras and crocodiles. Mummies were so commonly found in Egypt by 19th and 20th century archaeologists that their distribution to museums around the world caused no great loss to the parent culture.
Although I had seen a number of such artefacts before my first (and thus far only) visit to Egypt, viewing mummies with their faces exposed in a Cairo gallery catalysed an important personal decision: It resolved my uncertainty regarding how my corpse would be disposed of when the time arrived. In this year of the pandemic, with the shadow of disease and death hanging constantly over us, news of the Albert Hall mummy brought that moment of decision back to me.
I do not believe in an afterlife and therefore in funeral rituals designed to help us grab congenial spots in the hereafter. Since the dead can have no interests, perhaps it should not matter at all how my cadaver is dealt with. An opposing viewpoint, which I share, is that the living have a justifiable stake in their treatment following death, arising from a legitimate concern about how they will be remembered.
I was tempted for many years to sign on for organ donation. What held me back was a lack of trust in our system to conduct a dignified procedure that would save family members additional trauma. The obvious second option was cremation. There is an electric crematorium at walking distance from my home, where I have witnessed the final rites of a number of family members and friends. Sadly, it is a dispiriting place, lacking all solemnity and grace.
Those are words I associate with funerals I have attended in churches, where architecture, ritual and speech combined to endow the occasions with poignancy. I have also found grace and solemnity in the Shia kabristan where many of my wife’s family members are buried. Entering the aptly named Arambagh graveyard from a typically busy street in central Mumbai, one is transported into a tranquil, tree-filled space which feels far removed from the bustle just left behind. Each year, on a day called shab-e-barat, members of the community visit the final resting places of loved ones, water their graves and say prayers at the graveside. It is a wonderful way to keep alive memories of the departed.
The churchyard and kabristan are, however, unavailable to resolute unbelievers like myself. And so it was that, approaching my 30th year, still confused about the issue, I walked into the royal mummy rooms of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, having paid extra for the privilege of seeing men and women who had died thousands of years ago laid out on slabs for examination by visitors.
Among them was Ramesses II, or Ramesses the Great, one of history’s most prolific builders, perhaps the world’s most powerful man in 13th century BC, a monarch identified by many Jews, Christians and Muslims with the villainous Pharaoh who opposed Moses, and the ruler who inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous sonnet, Ozymandias. The poem tells of a colossal statue lying shattered in the middle of the desert, mocking the pretensions of the king who commissioned it. Many damaged statues of Ramesses the Great had been found in Egypt by the time Shelley published Ozymandias in 1818, but a greater mockery of the emperor was yet to come.
The riches of the Theban necropolis that held the pharaohs’ tombs always attracted thieves, and the burial chamber of Ramesses II was pillaged not long after his death. His mummy, along with dozens of others, was restored and shifted to the tomb of a high priest, with an account of the restoration inscribed in the mummy’s linen wrapping. Three thousand years later, in 1881, authorities following the trail of unusual antiquities that had appeared in the market arrested a grave robber named Abd el-Rassul, who led them to the high priest’s tomb and its cache of mummies. Many of these now lie beside Ramesses the Great in the Egyptian Museum.
Those individuals might have feared having their graves desecrated but surely they could not have imagined being plucked from their resting places to be placed in a room where travellers who had arrived in flying machines from all parts of the world would gawk at their uncannily lifelike faces. The indignity of their present circumstance contrasts sharply with what they wished for themselves but since nobody any longer shares their belief system, no activists demand their reburial.
While most of my mind connected present with past during the walk through the mummy room, a part linked present with future. We can no more predict the value systems and technological capacities of humans who will be alive 300 years from now than Egyptians who lived 3,000 years ago could predict ours. We have no idea what they will be capable of doing with our physical remains, and it is possible they will manipulate and use them in ways we shudder to contemplate.
The more I pondered over this fact, the clearer it became to me that I want no part of those future experiments. Where the Egyptians sought to preserve the body forever, I choose to obliterate it. Since the surest route to oblivion is through incineration, I have settled on the default option I had long resisted. It is the furnace for me, though I hope not for a while yet.
Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.
FIRST PUBLISHED27.08.2020 | 09:00 AM IST
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