Tag Archives: mummies

All You Want to Know about Mummies and More

Modern Mummies: The Preservation of the Human Body in the Twentieth CenturyModern 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.

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Cemetery of the Week #78: Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum

The columns of the Egyptian Museum

Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum
1660 Park Avenue
San Jose, California 95191
Museum Main Line: (408) 947-3635
Founded: 1927
Number of interments: 4 are currently on display
Open: Wednesday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
Admission: $9 ($1 discount for members of AAA, AAM, KQED, and Military). Seniors 55 and older and students with I.D.: $7. Children ages 5 – 10 are $5. Children under 5 are free.

San Jose, California’s Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum is housed in a breathtaking replica of the temple of Amon at Karnak, complete with a row of sphinxlike rams leading to its front steps. The museum’s website claims it is the only Egyptian-style building in the world to house Egyptian artifacts. Even the Egyptian Museum in Cairo is a modern Western-style building.

The Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum has the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts on exhibit west of the Mississippi. Over 4000 pieces are on display. Among those items – charms, musical instruments, toys, and other everyday items – lay 4 human mummies.

Cat mummies

With the help of Stanford University and Silicon Graphics, among others, the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum made detailed high-res scans of a 2000-year-old mummy without disturbing her wrappings. She turned out to be a girl, no more than five years old, who belonged to an affluent family. Since her mummy shows no signs of disease, researchers believe she died unexpectedly. The Museum nicknamed her Sherit, which means “little one” in Egyptian. The examination process is shown on a video near her mummy, which rests in a glass case.

The museum also contains a life-sized walk-through replica of a rock-cut tomb beneath a pyramid. The tomb is open only for guided tours, but it gives a good sense of what it’s like to wedge into the secret, sacred space, surrounded by murals that depict the life and afterlife of the tomb’s occupant. In this case, the tomb waits empty, as if looted. (An interesting choice, since the names – and provenance – of the mummies in the museum’s collection are not always known.) Since the mummy cases stand just outside, you can assemble the pieces in your mind.

Also on display are mummified domestic cats, several species of birds, baby crocodiles, a baboon, and the head of a sacred bull.

The emblem of the AMORC

The AMORC (the Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis or Rosy Cross) is the American incarnation of a mystery school that traces its roots back to ancient Egypt, although the fraternity as such descends more directly from a possibly mythical Christian Rosenkreutz in the Germany of the late middle ages. Rosicrucian practices include spiritual alchemy and meditation, without any overt religion involved. At any rate, the AMORC was founded in the US in 1915 by Dr. H. Spencer Lewis. Lewis then came west and established the Rosicrucian Park in San Jose. His son ran the organization after his father’s death and oversaw the expansion of the order’s public museum.

The museum has been rebuilt several times over the years, as it outgrew its previous space. The current museum, purpose-built to house artifacts collected by members of the order, opened in 1966.

Rosicrucian Park in San Jose, California

Famous modern Rosicrucians have included Walt Disney and Gene Roddenberry. The Order also claims Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci, Dante (although that would have been a stretch from Germany in 1313 to Florence in 1321, when Dante died), Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Napoleon. It’s related to the Masonic Order, which was founded after Rosicrucianism and includes a level called the Rose Cross, and to the Temple of the Golden Dawn, which conducted spiritual warfare against the Nazis in World War II. The AMORC now has a Facebook group and conducts their classes online.

Useful links:

The museum’s homepage

A map and some good photographs

Information on mummification

A postcard with a photo of a mummy and the mummy cases

Cemetery of the Week #15: The Capuchin Catacomb of Rome

Antique postcard of the Crypt of the Three Skeletons

The Capuchin Catacomb of Rome
Chiesa di Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini
Via Vittorio Veneto, 27
Rome, Italy 00187
Telephone: 06/4871185
Decorations completed: 1764
Number of skeletons used to decorate the chapels: 4000
Size: 6 small rooms
Open: 9-noon, 3-6 p.m. Closed Thursdays.
Admission: small donation

From the Via Veneto, home of La Dolce Vita, the yellow brick church doesn’t look like much. One might expect that a centuries-old international tourist attraction like the crypt of the Church of the Immaculate Conception would have a multilingual sign. Instead, you must climb a flight of stairs to find a small plaque pointing toward the Coemeterium.

The Capuchin monks separated from other Franciscan monastic orders in 1525 AD. The Capuchins wanted to exist closer to the way St. Francis of Assisi lived in the 13th century. To that end, they wore sandals without socks and a simple brown tunic with a hood to cover their heads when the weather turned bad. The name Capuchin derives from this hood, called a capuce.

Capuchin monks gathered in houses near woods or green spaces, where they could meditate. They planted orchards, in which their work served as prayer. They cared for the poor, especially the sick. They continue those ministrations today.

In 1631, the Capuchins of Rome moved from their friary near where the Trevi Fountain now stands to land donated by Cardinal Barberini near his palace. The monks exhumed and brought with them bones of 4000 of their brethren. These bones were piled under their new church of Santa Maria della Concezione, in six rooms connected by a 60-meter corridor.

Sometime in the 1700s, arrangement of the bones began. Several theories exist about the identities of the decorators. Either they were French Capuchins who fled the Terror, or a notorious criminal who sought refuge with the monks and atoned for his crimes by positioning the bones, or a man of “ardent faith, who is almost joking with death,” as the official brochure suggests. The Marquis de Sade, who visited in 1775, suspected that a German priest arranged the bones.

These days, a painting of Christ leading Lazarus from the tomb still dominates the first room. Grasping his friend’s wrist, Christ tugs the revenant up from the ground. The former corpse is nearly naked: his shroud slips down beneath his buttocks. Turned away from the viewer toward his sisters and Christ, Lazarus’s expression is impossible to gauge. Lettered boldly in yellow at the bottom is the legend: “Lazare veni foras”: Lazarus, come forth.

It’s immediately apparent that the monks tried to use as many bones as possible, in order to fit everyone in. Skulls formed two triangular arches, beneath which lay the dusty mummies of two monks in tattered brown robes.

The next room — the only one on the corridor free of bones — serves as the cemetery’s mass chapel. Its altarpiece depicts Mary seated on a cloud. A toddler Jesus stands on her knee, his nakedness shielded a wisp of white fabric. With the help of three monks in brown robes and an angel in gray, they raise souls out of the flames of purgatory.

Next door, the Crypt of the Skulls is decorated with curved niches formed by arm and thighbones, supporting cornices of skulls. Inside each arch lay another dusty monk.

In the tympanum of the central niche hangs an hourglass made of two tailbones tip to tip. The bottom coccyx looks darker in color, as if the sands of time have all run down. A double row of very straight bones, perhaps somebody’s forearms, draws the hourglass’s case. Outside the case, four shoulder blades symbolize wings. While the message was certainly intended to be serious, the bone art seems lighthearted. Time flies, indeed.

Ornaments made of bones continue overhead. A garden of ribs suggests furrows of earth, where tulips bloom into single vertebrae. A chain formed by jawbones comes to a point, from which descends a lamp made from a sheaf of thighbones.

Next comes the Crypt of the Pelvises, followed by the Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thighbones. That room’s centerpiece is two severed arms, lopped off at the shoulders and affixed to the back wall. The arm on top is bare; the other wears a rough brown sleeve. Their skin has dried to the color of paper ash. Instead of curled into fists, bones protrude through their outstretched fingertips. They represent the Franciscan coat of arms: the bare arm of Christ crossed over the robed arm of Francis of Assisi.

The final room, called the Crypt of the Three Skeletons, is the most ornately decorated. Complete skeletons of two children lounge over the altar made of pelvises on the back wall. The children reach up toward an adult skull. One child holds a short spear like a fishing pole. The other balances a winged hourglass atop his ribcage.

A third small skeleton lies flat against the ceiling. He holds a staff formed of shinbones crested with a blade of scapulae. In his other hand swings a scale whose cups are skullcaps, dangling from chains strung of finger bones. He is the least threatening death figure I’ve ever seen. Even his grin looks wistful.

Useful Links:

The official website.

Information on the Church above.

The Lonely Planet site has a map.

Other cemeteries in Rome worth visiting:

Cemetery of the Week #8: the Protestant Cemetery of Rome

Cemetery of the Week #29: the Pantheon

Cemetery of the Week #32: the Mausoleum of Augustus

Cemetery of the Week #67: the Catacomb of St. Sebastian