For all we know, the soul of Perneb is wandering around, flustered, like a smoker without a Quik Trip at 3 am. Perneb believed, or at least some of his friends and family believed, that he needed a tomb with a false door to keep his soul nourished. Unfortunately, Mr. Edward S. Harkness gave Perneb’s tomb to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1913, and they hauled it over to New York City, stone by stone.
What if someone bought your dad’s grave and took it apart and sent it far away, so you couldn’t leave flowers? What if we moved the Jews out of Jerusalem and told them Beijing is just as good? What if we turned the Lincoln Memorial into a casino? How close in time or space do people have to be to earn our respect? How long dead is dead enough to be disregarded?
In Chicago, at the Field Museum, visitors circulate past at least a dozen dead bodies. The ancient Egyptians felt like bodies were important. So important that they carefully preserved them. Their religious beliefs don’t matter to us, though. For us, their religion is foolish and primitive, and their execution of religious ritual is only something to be studied and gawked at. Mummies of men, women, and children are on display. Some people say, “Ooh, gross, spooky.” Some people look soberly at death.
I wouldn’t have such a problem with this if I weren’t well aware that many people find my religion foolish and primitive. Our main story is about a guy coming back from the dead, a motif so common in the ancient world as to be wholly unremarkable. In fact, the ancient Egyptians used that story too, it’s just that their guy was named “Osiris,” and he appears bandaged up, returning to his beloved wife, in a tender alternate version of the Jesus story. Death can’t beat us. Human love is powerful. That’s what they believed. That’s what I believe.
The mummies in Chicago are residents of a Natural History Museum, and they certainly are history. Many places, though, including Kansas City, mummies are in art museums. What makes a mummy art? It wasn’t intended for display. It was intended for burial. I don’t understand how it could be art any more than a corpse straight from Newcomer’s Funeral Home. There is an art to caring for and decorating the dead. My great-grandfather was that sort of artist. I’m just not sure it’s an art that belongs in a museum.
I suspect that the preservation of the body is not necessary for the health of the soul. It does say something about us, though, that we have rather recently come to show some meager respect to Native American religious beliefs, and continue to show absolutely none to people whose cultures have died or morphed beyond recognition. Separating who you respect from who you don’t is a dangerous game.
Perneb’s name means “my Lord has come forth to me.” He worked in the court, robing and crowning the king. We don’t know a lot else about him. It’s possible he’d even be pleased about his change of eternal address. I hope that, like me, he loves being in New York.