Half a century after Boris Karloff first played the man in the bandages, The Mummy is once again drawing people in droves to movie theatres. It’s almost like The Mummy has eternal life–which, of course, is the whole idea.

A mummy is any dead animal or human body in which soft tissues have been preserved long after they would ordinarily decay. Normally, bacteria decompose dead bodies. To create a mummy, you have to deprive the bacteria of at warmth, oxygen or moisture–the three things they need to grow.

Mummies occur naturally whenever one of these is absent. Mummies have been found perfectly preserved by cold in the Arctic, by a lack of oxygen in peat bogs, and by a lack of water in deserts.

Various cultures, learning that it’s possible to preserve bodies by one of these methods, have incorporated mummies into their religious beliefs. Natives of the Canary Islands used to dry the bodies of their dead and stuff them with plants. Ancient New Guineans smoke-dried their dead, like beef jerky. In this century, Eva Peron and Vladimir Lenin have been mummified, though for political rather than religious reasons.

No culture, however, has developed mummification further as the ancient Egyptians. They probably discovered mummification by accident by burying their dead in the desert; eventually they learned to mummify bodies before they were buried.

Their reasons for mummifying people were religious. The ancient Egyptians believed that four qualities made up an individual: the akh, the ka, the ba and the ren. After death, the akh moved into the realm of the gods. The ren–the person’s name–had to be preserved and repeated. The ka, or “vital energy,” was the person’s double and was reunited with the body after death; the ba, represented in Egyptian art as a human-headed bird that can fly around and leave the tomb at will, also had to return to the body. Obviously, both needed a body to come back to.

Egyptian mummification, as eventually perfected, took 70 days to complete under the supervision of a chief embalmer (wearing a jackal mask to represent Anubis, the god of mummification), helped by several assistants. The body was first placed on a slanted table, and soft internal body parts were removed. To remove the brain, the embalmers rammed a sharp instrument up the nose to break the nasal cavity open, then used a metal hook to pick out the brain or stir it until it liquified and dribbled out of the nostrils. (Since the Egyptians thought the brain only existed to produce mucus, they didn’t give it much respect.)

Next, the embalmers sliced open the body’s left side with a stone knife and removed the stomach, intestines, liver and lungs. They were placed in a bed of naturally occurring salt called natron, a compound of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate, which dried them out. They were later stored in the tomb with the mummy. (The Egyptians believed that after death the body would be magically made whole.)

The body was then washed with wine and rubbed with spices. The alcohol in the wine helped kill bacteria (not that the Egyptians knew that). Then the body was covered with natron and left to dry for 40 days. Once it was dry, it was cleaned again and rubbed with oils to soften the now leathery skin. Then the mummy was adorned with jewelry, and finally covered in linen shrouds and bound with linen strips, liberally coated with resin and embedded with special amulets designed to speed the deceased to the afterlife.

The head and face were often covered by a mask decorated with facial features similar to those of the deceased (to help the ka and ba find the right body), then the body was placed in a coffin, usually in the shape of the corpse. Sometimes several coffins were placed one inside the other, and then placed in turn inside a stone sarcophagus.

The Egyptians also mummified cats, crocodiles and other animals, but the among people, the process was reserved for the wealthy and powerful.

In one sense, they’ve achieved their goal of eternal life. Researchers continue to examine them to learn more about ancient health, diet and daily life, and examine genetic links among ancient people. And, of course, many mummies today reside in museums, where thousands marvel at them.

One ancient mummy even stars in his own movie. What more could you ask for in an afterlife?

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