Can people turn themselves into mummies? Have you, personally, ever wondered how to mummify your own body, or how to otherwise become a species of zombie? Wonder no more. As it turns out, certain dedicated, masochistic, and/or courageous Japanese monks - all of whom hailed from the Vajrayana school of Buddhism known as Shingon - perfected the art of self-mummification long ago.
Otherwise known as "sokushinbutsu," this particular process of self-mummification involves such extreme asceticism – the self-denial of worldly pleasures like food – that one becomes, for a brief and agonizing time, a living corpse. Though it was mostly practiced in northern Japan at various points between the 11th and 19th centuries (an almost incomprehensibly long span of time), the rite is both highly illegal and widely frowned upon now. Also known as "miira mummies," ("miira" refers to the myrrh that was frequently used as a corpse-preservative), these relics are singularly unique. Read on to find out more about their grotesquely holy history, and to get a crash course on how to mummify your own body – if that's something you're, you know, really determined to do.
It Was Done For Enlightenment And To "Become A Buddha In The Body" – With A Little Glory Mixed In
According to All That Is Interesting, "the first attempt at sokushinbutsu took place in 1081, and ended in failure." Nevertheless, the effort launched a macabre copycat phenomenon of sorts: as of July of 2017, it's estimated that 100-odd monks have tried to dispatch themselves in the same way, though only two dozen or so have succeeded. (The last person to do it is said to have been a monk named Bukkai, who mummified himself illegally in 1903).
The first monk to carry out the ritual, a Japanese priest known as Kukai, was thought to exemplify the spiritual tenets of "discipline and dedication," as Ancient Origins put it. (It made you "a Buddha in the body"). There was also the goal of prestige to consider: the monk who succeeded in corpsifying himself was "posthumously placed in a temple for others to see and honor."
To Mummify Yourself, Restrict Your Diet, Drink Some Lethal Tea, And Sit In A Sealed Chamber For Three Years
Desiccating yourself isn't as simple as it sounds. For starters, there's a "3,000-day 'training' process for turning an ordinary ascetic's body into a mummy's," to consider, as Damn Interesting tells it.
"The key element of the process [was] dietary. Japanese ascetics would commonly abstain from cereals, removing wheat, rice, foxtail millet, pros so millet, and soybeans. Instead, they would eat things like nuts, berries, pine needles, tree bark, and resin... over time, the diet would become more restrictive, starving the body of nutrients and eliminating the fat and moisture that can encourage bodily decay after death."
There was also "urushi," a gradually lethal tea said to be fashioned from "the sap of Toxicodendron vernicifluum, which is typically used to make lacquer." The article delineates the exact purpose of this corpse-elixir: "In addition to facilitating vomiting, the urushi may have functioned as a sort of embalming fluid, rendering the body toxic to potential flesh-eating invaders."
A combination lacquer and embalming fluid – what could be more resourceful? After that, the monk would enter his own burial chamber, which had a very tiny opening for air. To prove he was still alive, he would chant and ring a bell. When the bell finally stopped ringing, his comrades would wait 1,000 days before opening the door to make sure the mummification had truly been achieved.
If Your Body Mummified Itself, Huzzah! If It Decayed, Bad News For You
As stated, after three years of no bell ringing, the mummy hopeful's chamber was opened. If his corpse was mummified, it was taken out, dressed in rich robes, and "placed in a shrine where humanity could await [its] reawakening," as Gizmodo puts it. However, if the body was merely decayed, it was buried like any other corpse... and an exorcism was performed over its remains, to boot.
Note: if you'd like to see the results of the successfully "executed" process for yourself, you can always travel to Ryusui-ji Dainichi Boo Temple in Tsuroka City, Japan, to view monk Daijuku Bosatsu Shinnyokai-Shonin, who corpsified himself at the ripe old age of 96 in 1783. Happy mummy hunting.