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Ritualizing the End

Even though for most of us the word mummy is associated with Egyptian pyramids and pharaohs, the Indigenous Chinchorro population of Chile was mummifying its dead as early as 7,020 BCE, thousands of years before Egypt began its own practice. Death, that inevitable ending to our own stories and the stories of those dearest to us, is something that every culture ritualizes in its own way, inventing gestures and ceremonies that help us come to terms with the most absolute of separations. Some of those rituals pervade our lives. As a Venezuelan girl who never carved a pumpkin until her 20s, when I saw jack-o-lanterns filled with flickering candlelight on film and TV screens, I felt an ephemeral bridge between life and death. And then there are the more secret rituals, the ones that shape how we see death but are mostly hidden.

Embalming, which shares some of mummification’s aims and techniques, became a practice in the US during the Civil War, as families tried to preserve dead soldiers’ bodies long enough to view and bury them back home. Today, it is a service that funeral homes offer and that is used in particular by those choosing an open casket for their loved ones. Jenn Park-Mustacchio, who has been an embalmer for 14 years, explained her process to The Guardian, “Setting the features involves closing the eyes and mouth and placing cotton in the mouth to give the person a more natural expression. Next, I gently flex the arms, legs and fingers to relieve the muscle tension or stiffness of rigor mortis. I position the hands one over the other.” She then drains the blood using a mix of fluids that take its place and that helps hydrate the body. Many embalmers also apply makeup to the face of the deceased, using photos provided by the family to recreate a stranger’s living face so that as we bid our loved ones farewell, we stare into a mirage that conceals some of death’s starkness from us. Having never seen a dead loved one who has not gone through this process, I cannot say whether I wish we would stop hiding what happens to the body when our lives end, but I do wonder if we’d greet death with less fear if we had a more open relationship with it.

Presenting on My Collaboration with My Editor on November 1

video call with editor
I have been working on and off with Cristina Carrasco, the editor for The Weeping Season, for a year and a half. Because she lives in Argentina and Spain and I in the US, we have never been physically together in one place. I am using our collaboration to theorize how members of diasporas use digital technologies to sustain relationships when geographically divided. I’ve been invited to present on this project as part of the University Interdisciplinary Colloquium at Michigan State University on Friday, November 1 from 12-1 pm. The presentation, titled “Making Feminist Documentaries Across Continents,” will take place at the Digital Scholarship Lab Flex Space on the second floor of the MSU Library. Refreshments and coffee will be provided.

Unearthed Photo of the Month

two mummies and alex
We visited Guanajuato, Mexico this summer, and on our last morning there we went to The Museum of the Mummies of Guanajuato, knowing little about it beside the fact that our cabdriver recommended it as one of the town’s most popular landmarks. If you’d asked me what I thought we’d find there, I would have described bodies wrapped in cloth like the Egyptian mummies I’d seen at other museums. But this place was different. As soon as we walked in, we found ourselves facing dozens of mummies standing in display cases. Some still had their long hair braided, others wore suits. The real shock, at least for me, were the expressions on their faces. Mouths wide open, eyes seemingly lost in some unspeakable vision. How had these people died? Why were their faces like that? And should I worry that my five and seven-year-old sons were seeing them? The last question answered itself quickly enough as the boys began to lose interest and chase each other around the displays. Whatever I found so haunting about these faces seemed natural to them, unremarkable.

Researching the story of the museum later, my husband and I learned that the mummies had mostly died in the 1833 cholera epidemic. At the time there was a tax in Guanajuato that the relatives of the deceased had to pay every year in order to keep them buried. When families were unable to pay, the cemetery exhumed the corpses and for some reason they’ve never been able to fully determine, the bodies had become mummified. The undertaker dressed them in white robes and stood them up against the walls of a room. As people heard of the mummies, they arrived in larger and larger numbers to see them, prompting the opening of the museum. When I asked my stepfather, who, being a doctor, has seen his share of corpses, whether their faces were the result of a particularly painful death, he explained that most of us make those expressions after we die. It’s a physiological reaction unrelated to our emotions at the time of passing. There was, in fact, nothing gruesome about the faces we saw. They were as natural as my sons seemed to find them.

Redesigning constellations

This October marks my first year as editor-in-chief of the peer-reviewed journal constellations: a cultural rhetorics publishing space. It has been a fantastic experience to work with our brilliant editorial team in running this journal. One of the most rewarding things I did this year was redesign our website and create a logo for the journal alongside my colleagues Jeff Kuure and Lauren Brentnell. Do check out our new look and the transformative scholarship we’ve been publishing.

Teta Wins Its Eighth Film Festival Award

two mummies and alex
Our short documentary Teta: A nursing mother tells her story won an “Exceptional Merit Award of Excellence” at WRPN Women’s International Film Festival. This is the documentary’s eighth award. As its festival run wraps up soon, we’ll be making the film available on streaming platforms. Please stay tuned.

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