Wednesday, February 17, 2010

King Tut

OK, I’m going to take a deep breath here, and try not to sound like some kind of puritanical kill-joy. But, I’ve got to admit that I’m more than a little uncomfortable with the whole King Tut thing.

If you didn’t see the news, scientists now think that they know what killed King Tut: malaria and complications from a broken leg (along with a lifetime of painful, genetic maladies). From a scientific point of view, I find this fascinating. The fact that we can diagnose genetic diseases in mummies, the fact that we can isolate the DNA of the Malaria-causing parasite from that human DNA, all in a 3000+ year-old mummy is simply amazing. Awe inspiring.

The glimmer of insight it gives us into the Boy King’s life is also powerful. Apparently, he was almost certainly unable to walk without excruciating pain, due to a birth defect. “Boy King” sounds pretty cool, but when you picture a life of pain and confinement, which ends before 20 years due to a withering disease – well, it certainly makes me think of Tut as a sad, tragic figure, more than anything else.

So, I get the “cool!” factor which is involved here. It really is impressive stuff, and many levels.

But, let’s remember, that this boy is dead.

Sorry to be a bit melodramatic, but when we talk about performing tests on “his mummy,” that can be a kind of euphemism which lets us ignore that we’re actually performing tests on his body. His corpse. The reason he was mummified is that his people believed that it was a sacred duty to preserve the body, in order (if I remember this properly) to help guarantee a good afterlife. I’m not saying that I buy into that – that by digging up the mummy, putting it on display and running countless tests on it, we’re now disturbing his immortal soul, and he’s suffering torment in the land of Anubis. Tut is gone, and his pain ended over 3000 years ago.

But, Judaism does believe that bodies are sacred, even after they are no longer alive. In fact, caring for, and respecting a body is one of the highest mitzvot in all of Judaism. And, like Judaism, Western Culture supposedly counsels us to respect other cultures and religions, in so far as we can without hurting ourselves. So, why then, I have to ask, is it ok to treat a corpse, even a very old one, this way? Why is it ok to dig it up, put it on display for a few decades, run tests on it, publish pictures of it, and generally ooh and ah over it?

I know it sounds awfully old fashioned, and I know that it’s beyond Quixotic to complain about these things. But, when I eventually die, I’d like to think that I’ll be treated with all of the respect demanded by my tradition. And, even though I know it won’t bug me in the least if it doesn’t go this way, I’d also like to think that my body, which our tradition understands as a sacred trust, on loan from God, won’t be used as a tool of idle speculation and amusement a few thousand years from now.

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