Editor’s Note: Jason Colavito (@JasonColavito) is a writer and culture critic based in upstate New York. His writing has appeared in Esquire, The New Republic, Slate, and elsewhere. He is the author of several books, including “The Legends of the Pyramids: Myths and Misconceptions about Ancient Egypt.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Mummies tend to spark feelings of the uncanny because they hover on an uncomfortable line between living and dead, between human and object.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen that mummy,” former President Bill Clinton once tastelessly joked about a 500-year-old mummified Peruvian girl nicknamed Juanita. “But you know, if I were a single man, I might ask that mummy out. That’s a good-looking mummy.”
Objectifying mummies has long been a concern, though rarely in quite that way. A bigger problem is the tendency to treat mummies as objects, an exploitable commodity for industry or entertainment.
Over the past few years, museums have started changing the way they talk about mummies, replacing the term “mummy” with “mummified person,” “mummified remains,” or other descriptors as a way of treating human remains with greater dignity and respect.
The issue came to the fore this week when a British tabloid accused a number of museums of going “woke” by changing their language. As the British Museum noted in a statement to CNN, the change isn’t a total ban on the word “mummy,” which is still used in the museum’s galleries.
Nevertheless, a spate of online headlines cast the changes as a ban on “mummy.” Since every effort at sensitivity is culture-war fodder, the conversation quickly turned into an argument about going “woke” instead of centering on the real issue: how we should talk about, and whether we should display, human bodies.
The display of human bodies or body parts has a long history. Sometimes it was a sign of reverence. The Inca, for example, treated the mummified bodies of their important dead as though they were alive, dressing them and presenting them with food.
The Catholic Church has filled cathedrals with the bodies and body parts of saints, which they consider holy relics fit for public viewing.
Other times the display is intentionally dehumanizing. Many a ruler has set the heads of enemies on spikes, and even into the early modern era, Western countries left the decaying bodies of executed criminals on public display as a warning and a show of power.
In English, use of the word “mummy” to mean a preserved human body dates back about 400 years, borrowed from the Latin version of an Arabic word.
But from the beginning the word was intended to put distance between the living and the dead, to turn deceased humans into objects.
Before it meant a whole corpse, “mummy” was first used to describe the oils and other preservatives used to embalm Egyptian bodies.
A lively trade in bodies from the 15th century on saw thousands of mummies exported from Egypt to Europe where they were ground up to make everything from medicine to paint to fertilizer. Many falsely believed that when consumed from a corpse, these substances had special powers.
A merchant supplying bodies for this mummy trade is on record wondering how “Christians, so dainty-mouthed, could eat the bodies of the dead.” The answer is that they didn’t really think of mummies as people.
Our language, reflecting Christian ideas of the immortal soul, traditionally recognizes at least a degree of distinction between the person and the flesh. After all, when we cremate a body, we don’t speak of the ashes as a “person experiencing cremation.”
But what does it mean to think of the body as synonymous with the person, versus thinking of the body as a vessel for the soul?
Perhaps one reason that the minor change in language to describe mummification sparked so much interest is because it subtly rejects the religious view of a person’s essence residing in their soul and instead suggests that we are but bone and sinew.
Another reason is less ethereal. Many human remains, whether skeletal or mummified, found in Western museums came there due to the legacy of imperialism and colonialism. Many bodies put on display are those of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, or are ancient enough to seem culturally distinct from modern populations. They didn’t choose to be there.
Displays of other cultures’ dead are therefore expressions of racial and cultural power dynamics, and our language reflects that. They aren’t “us.” Many will refer to the preserved body of an indigenous ruler as a “mummy.” But the preserved corpse on display in Moscow is usually called Vladimir Lenin, not “the mummy of a Russian leader.”
In the United States, museums, universities and other government institutions still warehouse more than 110,000 Native American bodies. Loud opposition meets any attempt to repatriate remains, often framed in culture-war terms. In the UK, the British Museum alone holds more than 6,000 human remains. The British Museum says that visitors “expect to see human remains as an element of our Museum displays.”
But should we?
Making a few cosmetic changes to signage to acknowledge the dead as people is a good start.
But real change will only come when we honor the dead by getting them out of our museums and leaving them to rest as they, their descendants, and their cultures wished.