Recently, Philippine President Corazon Aquino granted permission for Imelda Marcos to return the body of her husband, Ferdinand Marcos, to his home province for burial. In an age when increasing numbers of Americans are choosing cremation over traditional burials, the news was a reminder of the important role burial sites and ceremonies can play in human culture.
That is especially true in the case of national leaders. In fact, the Aquino government had delayed burial permission since Marcos' death in 1989 in order to avoid stirring up divisive political passions.
The Marcos grave may eventually become something of a tourist site or destination for political pilgrims. But regardless of any lingering fascination with the Marcos mystique, it will certainly never match the champions of spectacular burials - the Egyptians.
In ancient Egypt, common people received common burials. But for leading members of society - and especially for royalty - burial and the preparations that preceded it were essential elements in preparing a person for the afterlife.
The Egyptians believed that the soul and the intelligence would, perhaps after thousands of years, return and, along with the "genius" of the person that remains with the body, re-inhabit and revivify the body. The Egyptians believed that, once reunited, these four essential elements of a human life could live forever in the kingdom of Osiris, judge of the dead and king of the nether world.
No wonder the Egyptians became specialists in embalming techniques and mummification. Unless the body was preserved adequately, there was no chance of reaching this idyllic afterlife.
This was not a quick or simple process. According to E.A. Wallis Budge, author of "The Mummy," the process of embalming a body and preparing it for burial took more than 70 days.
The process, suffused with religious meaning and ritual, began with the careful removal of the internal organs, which were preserved separately in jars, each under the protection of a goddess. Then the body was put in a tank of liquid natron to soak for 70 days. Afterward, the body was stuffed with mixtures of spices and preservatives. The fingernails were usually stained henna, and jewelry inscribed with names, titles and prayers was placed on the body.
The mummy was rubbed with unguents and then thickly bandaged with strips of linen. It was then placed in an inner coffin and a cover, both made of elaborately carved and painted wood. These were sealed with plaster and varnish, before being placed inside an outer coffin. Like the other containers, this one was painted both inside and outside, but with fewer details.
The mummy was then ready for the funeral and procession to an equally elaborate tomb. Given the importance the Egyptians attributed to the preservation of the body and to a proper burial, it is interesting that one ancient historian maintains that the burial of a king was contingent on the approval of the people.
Although there seems to be no evidence that kings were actually deprived of a proper burial, the prospect of the people passing judgment on a life was said to encourage kings to be more concerned with justice.
That's a nice thought, regardless of whether it was the case.
It's tempting to look at the Egyptian rituals as excessive, naive and vain. But even from our sometimes-jaded 20th century point of view there's something to be said for the fact that the prospect of the rituals that surround death can influence for the better the way we live our lives.