An Incantation – a meditation on mummies, permanence and impermanence

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Navigate your way through the immense amount of antiquities at the British Museum and you’ll eventually turn a corner where you’ll find yourself entranced by the charcoal eyes, raven hair and the gold jewelry of ancient Egyptian mummies. Their crossed arms clutch thousand year-old secrets and you can’t help but feel something like tenderness when you look at their tightly-wrapped feet, reminding you of a swaddled infant. You’ll be transfixed under their empty gazes; they seem to stare right through then past you – seeing something you cannot. You are humbled in their presence, fully aware that while they were once human like you, they are something you’ll never be — three-thousand years old.

I’m not the only one staring at this dead body.  People snap photos. I admit, I snapped a photo, too. I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of compassion for this decomposed corpse. She was graceful in her death, beautiful in her rottenness. No longer enclosed in her original wooden casket but a temperature-controlled tomb, her destiny in the afterlife was to be on display.

I’ve thought long and hard about what it is that compels us to be so drawn to these mummies. I don’t think it has so much to do with life and mortality as it has to do with the abstract complexities of permanence and impermanence. It’s the common denominators of being human that lure us to lean into the narrative that these ancient corpses contain. Despite the thousands of years and pharaohs that separate us from them, we are still the same in that we are born and then we die. We are forever linked in the truths of life, of beauty, love, suffering and death.

But perhaps our modern-day fascination and fixation is on the outcome (an extraordinarily well-preserved corpse) of what might be otherwise summed up as a way the ancient Egyptians coped with grief and loss.  We stare in wonder and in awe of what remains from an ancient era but are we missing the point?  Maybe it’s not necessarily about the mummification process or even the afterlife per se.  Maybe it’s about the ancient art of letting go.

These beings, who were once someone’s wife, sister, daughter, best friend and mother, hold something more mysterious than just the skin on their bones. Their bodies are relics that speak to forgotten rituals. Despite matted and clumped hair, gaunt cheeks and protruding teeth, they are offerings in themselves, testament to a process far removed from our current realities.

I once read something somewhere that said, “There’s beauty in every single loss.”  How true that is.  You can be suffocating in the darkness of grief and out of the obscurity comes a glint of something exquisite.  It’s tiny and deeply profound–something so unbelievably marvelous it can only be described as beautiful.  Oddly, there’s a bittersweet joy in that kind of beauty.  Don’t ask me how it’s possible, but it’s true because I’ve felt it and found it and had it.  I think it’s called grace, actually.  It’s so weird and otherworldly that it must be divine.

When my best friend died three years ago, a part of me left with her.  She contained my secrets.  They were the ones I would have never told anyone else.  For the most part I am okay with those secrets being as gone as she is.  For the most part I am okay that she’s gone too.  I say “gone” not because I don’t believe in the afterlife or the spirit world or other supernatural possibilities.  I say “gone” because that’s the only word that can sum up a gap, an emptiness.  The permanence of her impermanence.

Katy was interested in science and time and philosophy and the fact that she was consciously aware of her limited life only heightened those interests.  I’m merely speculating here, we never actually talked about it, but I think a lot of her interest came from the simple fact she was just trying to figure out what would happen to her, what would happen to us–her friends and family–without her.  I think a part of her desperately hoped she would eventually come across a big, bright answer.  That eventually there would be something that would make her departure more bearable for all of us.  A guide of sorts where she could say, “Okay!  I’ve got it!  Here’s what’s going to happen.”  A consolation to her and then to the rest of us.  She wanted solace–reassurance that somehow all this living and suffering would one day make sense to us.  She wasn’t trying to get around her death, she wasn’t trying to escape it. She was just trying to give it a valid place in her life without surrendering to it.  She wanted what we all wanted: certainty in the face of loss.  An assurance that we would all be alright, even in death.

Ancient Egyptians believed in a lot of things that we don’t believe in.  For example, they believed that each person’s shadow and name embodied their identity.  They believed that by preserving the body they could become immortal.  They believed in the afterlife, yes.  But in reading about it, from what I understand they didn’t consider it really an afterlife so much as they considered death another form of existence.  What they called “ka” was their spiritual double, and I suppose, what we would call the soul. “Ba” was something else. It’s separate from the body and it gives the deceased freedom of movement but without a preserved corpse, the “ba” would perish.

Ancient Egyptians’ funerary text is commonly known as “The Book of the Dead.” Interestingly, the literal translation reads quite differently: “Formulae for Going Forth by Day.” Later this was replaced with a new title, “Book of Breathings” and then again changed to, “Book of Traversing Eternity.”  These were, apparently, instruction manuals.  Katy would like that; a formula for going forth by day, a book about how to breathe, a book about embarking on the arduous journey of eternity.  Isn’t it just proof that this dying thing has been done before?  That none of us are alone in this life or in our death.  It’s oddly comforting to know that figuring out how to let go is as timeless as figuring out how to live.

To have an afterlife according to ancient Egyptians (partially combined with my imagination’s version of the process):

To have an afterlife your body must enter into the Tent of Purification. You can find this white tent on the banks of the Nile.  There, your brain will be extracted through your nose then tossed into the river for the crocodiles to eat. If the crocodiles truly are intermediaries for the gods as it is said that they are, your brain will be what nourishes them in this life to then join you in the afterlife.

Everything inside you will be extracted except for your heart. Your heart, the vessel that has housed the emotions of your lifetime, stays with you.

Once your organs have been removed, your body will be packed with salt and then left to dry for forty days and forty nights.

Your skull will be filled with wood shavings, linen and earth and sand will be inserted under your skin to keep it taut.

Your body will be anointed with resin. You will be wrapped in cloth while incantations are recited for you. Your devoted burial masters will surround you with garlands of rosebuds and sprigs of myrtle.

Then, thousands of years later you will live in a museum in a country called the United Kingdom where people will come and stare at you in wonder, in awe. They will feel slightly unnerved when they see you – so dead yet so immortal.  You will have succeeded in conquering impermanence and it’s just as you thought — by preserving your physical body you have been assured immortality.  Heaven, as it turns out, is the British Museum.

The last thing the Egyptian exhibition left me with was a quote.  It was from 1400 B.C. and was actually an excerpt from a harpist’s song.

 

“Follow your heart while you’re alive

Put perfume on your head

Clothe yourself with fine linen…

Make holiday and don’t tire of it!”

 

It’s almost comical it’s so simple, this advice on living from the dead: just enjoy.

In a bizarre and ironic way, the Egyptians, in their belief in the afterlife really did secure themselves just that.  Maybe not the one the had intended or envisioned, but an afterlife just the same.

I think about Katy a lot.  But not in terms of her death.  I think of her in terms of life even if she’s not actually “in” the same life we’re in anymore.  I think of her in terms of spirit. Sometimes I like to pretend that really, she’s not gone but out there traveling the world, browsing in shop windows in some foreign country where the toasted evening air is the color of warm bread.

The beauty in loss, I’ve come to realize, is the very thing that remains despite the loss.  It’s the thing that continues to be, the thing that won’t ever, can’t ever die.

The permanence within the impermanence, as it just so happens, is ours to keep.

 

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