Author Archives: savanna

The Modern Mummy

There is a certain fascination with the idea of mummies. The fact that they are so old, yet extremely well preserved makes them an interesting area of study for scientists. In a recent Discovery Curiosity special, this was just the topic of research. The special, titled “I Was Mummified”, chronicles the journey of a terminally ill Alan Billis who donated his body to be mummified in the name of science. Dr. Stephen Buckley, the scientist in charge of the project, had been studying the way of embalming that took place in the time of Egyptian pharaohs. First, he chemically analyzed the compounds found in and on mummies. Then using only materials that would have been available back then such as linen, beeswax, sesame oil, and salt, Buckley performed as many as 200 experiments to perfect the process. The only thing left to do was to test out his seemingly perfected method on a human.

Shortly after his death, Alan Billis’s process of becoming a modern day Pharaoh had begun. His internal organs were removed through a small incision in his abdomen. The only thing left was the heart, because the heart was thought to perform the functions that we now know the brain performs. The brain was also left undisturbed, contrary to popular belief that the brain was removed through the nose using hooks. The body cavity was filled with linen balls to preserve fullness. The incision and body were sealed using a beeswax and sesame oil mixture. Then in order to draw the moisture out of the internal tissues, Alan was placed in a natron salt bath for 35 days. This process helped to set the body fat in a new stable form. He was then placed in a heated chamber to dry out for two weeks. Finally, he was wrapped in linen and left to dry out for six more weeks.

After these six weeks, he was partially unwrapped to be observed. He appeared dark, but still resembled himself. Decomposition seemed to have been halted, his skin was hard and leathery rather than soft and slimy as would have been expected without the process of mummification. The scientists had succeeded.

Mummy (not Alan Billis)

This was so amazing to me. The fact that scientists could recreate the methods of the ancient Egyptian embalmers is a testament to modern day science. However, the even more incredible fact is that thousands of years ago people had this knowledge, which allowed them to preserve bodies that are still around today.

Ritual mummification was crucial to the Egyptians because it allowed the body and soul to reunite in the afterlife. Even though, today it was not so much a ritual as it was a science experiment, learning about the ritual lets us clearly see the time and care that was put into preservation of the body. This is still done today with our less intensive form of embalmment. In order to make modern day embalming a seemingly normal practice, we tend to place our reasoning for this technique in past accepted funerary practices, like mummification.

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Savanna Johnson

The Civil War and Changing Views on Death

Arlington National Cemetery

While today the United States has very specific rituals concerning military personnel deaths, it was not long ago in US’s history that standards of burial did not even exist. This was clearly displayed in an interesting documentary by Ric Burns called “Death and the Civil War.” People projected that the war would be quite short with minimal casualties because of the dominance and organization of the North in relation to the South. However, this perception quickly changed as the war progressed and battles were leaving hundreds to thousands of dead strewn across the battlefield. The Battle of Shiloh left about 3,500 men dead in, a number that was once not even conceivable. Originally, it was the role of the military leaders to provide a decent burial and for the deceased, but they were simply not prepared to deal with the scope of the death.

During the time of the Civil War photography was gaining popularity. Consequently, these images of death were more accessible and palpable. This caused public outcry by citizens, who then began many volunteer commissions to help save and comfort the dying during the war. After the war even more commissions arose to identify the dead and give them proper burials whether they had been buried in a mass grave or simply left on the battlefield. It was expected that the government had a commitment to these soldiers who had died fighting for it. In 1867, the government began to fund, build, and protect cemeteries for the soldiers, spending 3 million dollars to do so. What was once the duty of the military leaders and volunteers had now become a government sanctioned policy.

This documentary definitively portrays the role and obligation of the living to the dead. Because of the volunteers who worked to give the soldiers dignity in death, today military personnel are held in high esteem in life and death. It is difficult imagine the amount of death people faced in the 1860’s during the civil war. With a much smaller population than today the effect of the deaths was much more detrimental to society. This is not to say that today’s war death tolls are not as significant to society, but rather that the death tolls have been substantially reduced. Society’s reaction to the unprecedented death of the Civil War caused a need to advance medical technology and governmental involvement.

Today there is a greater recognition for the men and women of the military who die in active duty. The institution of military cemeteries such as Arlington and numerous commemorative holidays such as Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day certainly exhibits this. The Civil War undoubtedly changed the US’s views on death and how it is dealt with especially on a large scale, as in the case of war.

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