Modern Mummies: The Preservation of the Human Body in the Twentieth Century by Christine Quigley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The subtitle is closer to the subject of this book that the slightly misleading title. Quigley’s definition of mummies is not limited to fleshly corpses but to any human remains. For instance, I wouldn’t consider the victims of the Andes-crash soccer players’ cannibalism to be mummies, even though some bodies were frozen in the snow against the day their flesh needed to be consumed. Perhaps the opacity of definition is mine, but the term mummy to me implies a length of post-mortem survival in the flesh. A couple of months doesn’t justify the term in my mind.
There are other moments where Quigley wanders off topic. I’m not sure I would consider the skeletons in teratology collections to be mummies, even when the infants’ bones remain unburied for decades. There’s a leap Quigley makes from scientific specimens to pre-term fetuses in carnival sideshows, which leads to a brief history of “bouncers,” rubber babies meant to slide under the laws about possession of unburied corpses. The information is interesting, sure, but felt a little like padding.
Still, let me assure that there is a wealth of fascinating information here. Want to know about the experiment reproducing the Egyptian method of embalming? Curious how the “Visible Man” was sectioned for your computer screen? This is the book for you.
In fact, the chapters about fully preserved human corpses, many of them displayed for lengthy periods, grants this book its place of honor on my bookshelf. The usual suspects are here: Vladimir Lenin, Eva Peron, the Capuchin mummies, the Museo de las Momias of Guanajuato, Elmer McCurdy. Better than that, Quigley traces the mummy (or mummies?) of John Wilkes Booth, the tradition of mortuaries preserving the bodies of people whose families neglected to pay for their burial, the modern corpses that show remarkable preservation and may perhaps perform miracles.
This is not a book for sissies. Although there could be more photographs overall, some of them are quite shocking. The body of the woman who had converted to adipocere in the Austrian lake was enough to chase away my seatmate on the bus. While the explanations of the body’s processes of decay or preservation are always presented in a clear-eyed and very understandable manner, we are talking about the smells and textures of dead people. It makes for intense bedtime reading.
You can pick up a copy of your own from Amazon. I’ll link to the hardcover, because the paperback edition has a needlessly gruesome cover image: Modern Mummies: The Preservation of the Human Body in the Twentieth Century
This review was published originally in Morbid Curiosity #4.