Properly-encapsulated honey has an eternal shelf life, so why not preserve bodies in it? At least that's the logical line of reasoning behind the science, and poetic mysticism, surrounding honey mummies.
Mellified men (AKA honeyed men) were elderly volunteers who gorged themselves on honey until they died. The sugary substance was subsequently poured into their coffin or sarcophagus, and it was widely believed that their "edible" bodies would have miraculous healing powers when they were finally exhumed. The first record of mellification dates back to 1596 CE, but, for ages, this practice was considered to be both holy and therapeutic... a medicinal gift designed to benefit generations to come. Read on to find out more about this particularly ingenious incarnation of corpse medicine ... which casts a springlike freshness over the grave and sweetens the foul tradition of eating mummies.
Gorging Yourself With Honey Until You Die: The First Step
As stated, the process of mellification was basically seen as a gift to future generations... by way of a sacrificial ritual. According to Mysterious Universe, it was first mentioned in the 16th-century text Bencao Gangmu, or the Compendium of Materia Medica, which was authored by one Li Shizhen, a Chinese pharmacologist. As Shizhen explains it, the process – which came to the Chinese from Arabia – typically started with a willing volunteer, who was almost always an older person in their 70s or 80s.
After they'd agreed to sacrifice themselves, the volunteer would begin eating, drinking (if that's the word), and bathing in nothing but honey – until their "sweat, urine, and even feces" essentially turned to pollen. Within just a couple months, the volunteer would of course die, and then they would be interred in a coffin that was filled to the brim with bee-elixir.
Marinating In Honey For Centuries: The Second Step
After the mellified man was ensconced in his honeyed coffin, there was nothing to do but wait 100 years for him to marinate. As Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers puts it,
"The date is put upon the coffin giving the year and month. After a hundred years the seals are removed. A confection is formed which is used for the treatment of broken and wounded limbs. A small amount taken internally will immediately cure the complaint.”
The theory may sound romanticized and fanciful, but the rationale behind it is not. According to the Smithsonian:
"For honey to spoil, there needs to be something inside of it that can spoil. With such an inhospitable environment, organisms can’t survive long enough within the jar of honey to have the chance to spoil..."
The combination is pretty much foolproof: as long as it's contained/jarred and unexposed to the open air and water, honey really will never go bad, even after a couple centuries. And ancient civilizations obviously assumed that the same was true of corpses.
Becoming Mummy Rock-Candy: The Final Step
Did the mellification process work? Yes and no, depending on the result you might've been looking for. Though the corpses of the honey-entombed didn't end up having any medicinal or healing properties whatsoever, they did retain vestiges of the substance that they were buried with. The end result was not "human rock candy," as the ancients had hoped. But as the article Honey, I'm Dead rather beautifully and poetically puts it:
"We didn’t find actual honey on their bodies ... it was long gone. Their bones were simply covered in flower pollen, and in bees’ broken toes.”
That's not all, though; as the piece goes on to explain, the relics unearthed in Ananauri, a Bronze Age grave site that was recently discovered, were also veritably covered in the substance:
"The samples, in this case, were wild berries... astonishingly well preserved. They were still red. They were 4,300 years old. They had been carefully cured with ancient honey... bushels of other ceremonial offerings in the tomb, such as hazel nuts, were slathered in honey. So were wicker baskets of chestnuts. Even some of the weavings and other organic perishables."
If Everything Went As Planned, You'll Probably End Up Looking Something Like This Guy
Obviously, once you enter into your eternal sleep, there is really no going back, so hopefully your helpful apothecary wrapped you up nice and tight before sending you on your way so that your sweet remains didn't end up being a smorgasbord for hitchhiking bacteria.
If that ended up being the case, then sorry to say you probably ended up looking like a regular old corpse that had once been swimming in moldy honey. But here's to trying!