Creepy Corner: Sweet, Sweet Mellification -- or the "Honey Mummy"

This week's Creepy Corner was suggested by my pal Andrew and his big ol' Harvard PhD brain full of spooky, deathly goodness.
Publish date:
June 11, 2015
alternative medicine, creepy corner, honey, mummies, food traditions, Weird History

This week's Creepy Corner was suggested by my pal Andrew and his big ol' Harvard PhD brain full of spooky, deathly goodness. The brainier they are, the creepier they are (am I right Creepy Corneristas?). When he posted this on my Facebook,

I did a little "Aaron Kelly's Bones" dance of joy. Of course mellification!

Part of me wanted to file this under "Recipe of the Week" but a honey mummy might not pair well with Claire's usual deliciousness. Well, maybe with a nice glass of scotch.

I'll admit, I'm weirdly hungry while writing this post. Maybe it has something to do with how med students (I've been told) crave steaks and cheeseburgers when they are dissecting cadavers. Medical professionals, is this really a thing? For what it's worth, I'm really craving baklava right now.

But what is mellification? Was it really a practice? Can a honey mummy really cure what ails ye?

In really simple terms, mellification is when you preserve a human body — inside and out— with honey. The process starts before death, is on a volunteer basis, and takes about 100 years. Then you have yourself something of a "candy man"!

In her book, "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers," Mary Roach tells of Li Shih-chen, a 1500s Chinese pharmacologist who told of the mellification of Arab men. Li Shih-chen writes that he cannot confirm that the actual mellification of a man or men occurred, but he cannot deny it either. He got his information from a fellow named Tao Jiucheng, and that was passed on merely by verbal account.

In Li's book Bencao Gangmu he states that he is recording the description of mellification "for others to verify." Way to pass the buck, Li.

I'd love to believe this, but how many times have you sugarcoated a story about that time in your junior year of high school when that guy like, totally got mellified at prom?

True or not, it's a really great story (recipe).

According to Li the mellification, or "human mummy confection," process began before death. An older man (only men are mentioned but anyone could be mellified I suppose) volunteered to make himself "mellifluous" or "like honey." For the last month or so of his life, the man only ate, drank, and bathed in honey. Supposedly all his excretions became honey too.

Then, mercifully, he died.

After death, the mellifluous corpse was sealed in a stone coffin full of honey, the date marked on the coffin (don't want any half-baked mellified man), and left to cure for 100 years. The honey mummified and preserved the body, and when the coffin was opened, the sticky-sweet remains were portioned out for market. "They’re like the human version of baklava," says Roach. (Hence my craving.)

Li, through his source Tao, said that the mellified body parts could occasionally be searched out in 12th century Arabian bazaars for a very high price — mellified man was considered a rare "treat." Not sought out as a confection, but for their medicinal properties, the mellified pieces of sweet, oozing, 100 year-old human could be rubbed on open wounds or broken bones as a cure.

Not healing fast enough? Have more problems than meets the eye? Mellified man could also be taken internally. You know, eaten. Eating the "sweet-tasting but vile glop," as described by Roach, was supposed to immediately cure a person of their injuries, as well as pretty much anything else.

Nobody ever did step up to confirm Li's account of mellified men, so with only one source to go on, it's hard to say if mellification, and the consumption of a mellified corpse, was actually a practice.

But honey has been used in death practices and rituals for ages. The Egyptians included beeswax and honey in their mummification practices, and honey was placed in the dead's tombs to offer them sustenance on their afterlife journey.

I came across this mention of medieval writer and historian, Abd’ Allatif, and a story he tells about an Egyptian tomb, some honey, and a corpse. Again, I can't confirm the account, but Abd’ Allatif's story is both fascinating and a little stomach-turning:

Abd’ Allatif relates that some men, searching for treasures in the Egyptian tombs near the Pyramids, discovered a sealed cruse and upon opening it they found that it contained honey. They began to dip their bread into it when one of them noticed hairs upon his fingers. The jug was carefully examined and was found to enclose the body of a small child in a perfect state of preservation. After the body was entirely withdrawn, rich jewels and brilliant ornaments with which the child was covered, were revealed.

Let me clarify that I don't find the discovery of a preserved child stomach-turning, it's the idea that some "tomb raiders" came across an old jar of honey in a TOMB and thought, "You know what will taste good on my bread? This here tomb-honey!"

And while those fellows bumbled into that honey pot, the Burmese believed, and may still believe, that the honey used to embalm a Buddhist monk was a cure-all.

According the website, "Nourishing Death" (food, death, culture — check it out Creepy Corneristas!):

People have used honey, the substance with a seemingly eternal shelf life, to embalm corpses, or as in Burma during the rainy season, to temporarily preserve the corpse until it can be cremated. If the deceased is a monk, once the corpse is removed and prepared for cremation the honey is extracted from the body first. it is then jarred and sold for exorbitant amounts of money, for it is believed that even a single drop will cure any affliction.

So what do you think Creepy Corneristas? Do you think mellification was a real practice? Or just the stuff of legends?

In my opinion, considering everything that we've covered here in the Creepy Corner, it's completely possible. People will do almost anything in the name of health.

Does anyone have more information on mellification? Is anyone else still hungry?