Md. man being mummified

June 17, 1994|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Sun Staff Writer

In the abandoned basement of an old embalming laboratory in downtown Baltimore, the body of a 76-year old man lies on a

wooden table.

He is covered by a mound of salt taken from the ancient Egyptian riverbed, Wadi el Natron. He is surrounded by pottery of different shapes and sizes, each piece containing one of the man's organs. Staring down at him from a shelf on the rear wall is a row of tiny Egyptian figurines, all of them a luminous green.

Something is happening to this man that has not happened in the past 3,000 years. Like the pharaohs, he is becoming a mummy.

For perhaps the first time in modern times, a faithful recreation of the mummification techniques the Egyptians used centuries ago being attempted. A New York professor of ancient philosophy and the head of Maryland's anatomy board are using historical records, including hieroglyphics, to mummify a Baltimore area man who died last spring. For the past month, that man, whose identity is beingkept a secret, has lain in a salt and baking soda compound -- called natron -- to dry out his body. On June 25, at the end of the 45 days prescribed by the ancient Egyptians, he will be wrapped in linen, the traditional garb of the mummy.

After that, the big question will start to be answered. Will he keep?

"I think it's going to work," said Ronald S. Wade, director of the state anatomy board. He believes his mummy could last 3,000 years.

This week, Mr. Wade sounds like a high school whiz kid bubblingwith enthusiasm over his science fair experiment. For him, the mummy project is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. While other kids dreamed of making the major leagues, he was yearning for a future as a mortician. And who are the most celebrated morticians in history but the Egyptians?

"They were one of the first to study anatomy, medicine and embalming," Mr. Wade, 45, said over lunch near his offices in the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

For Mr. Wade, the adventure began last fall when a producer for National Geographic's "Explorer" program called. She explained that an authority on mummification at Long Island's C. W. Post University named Bob Brier had proposed to replicate the process. National Geographic eagerly offered to film it.

All they needed was a body.

That was a problem. New York had a body shortage -- that is, a shortage of bodies donated to science. Also, no medical schools were interested in such a bizarre experiment. Enter Mr. Wade.

The function of Maryland's anatomy board, housed in the basement of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, is to provide bodies for medical research. Under Mr. Wade's leadership, Maryland is providing as many as 1,000 bodies every year, becoming a national model.

Even though he had the bodies,Mr. Wade told National Geographic, transporting one out-of-state and not to a medical school, presented bureaucratic problems. He advised them to look elsewhere, but to call him if they were in a bind.

After he hung up, though, Mr. Wade said he couldn't stop thinking about the project. In the mortuary classes taught under his guidance at the anatomy board, the very first subject is Egyptian mummification. He realized there could be nothing more professionally satisfying than to participate in a real one.

By the time National Geographic called back in December, Mr. Wade was ready with an offer. With approval from the Maryland medical school, he would provide the body on the condition that the mummification be performed in his laboratory.

National Geographic and Mr. Brier, who could not be reached yesterday, agreed, happy to have an anatomy expert involved. Before long, Mr. Wade, the son of a funeral director and a mortician himself, found himself a full partner.

Mr. Brier is paying for the costs of the unusual materials and tools needed for the project. The anatomy board is bearing the costs of preparing and storing the mummy. The board is self-supporting.

Mr. Wade says that replicating mummification will increase understanding of anatomical preservation. National Geographic believes that a learning-by-doing process will increase knowledge about an ancient past.

"It's worth doing because it's history," said Amy Wray, producer of the mummy show. "Like any historical research, the more we understand the better."

By early March, Mr. Wade had begun searching in earnest for a body. He and Mr. Brier knew what they preferred: a young man whose body had not been damaged by long-term disease, who did not die violently and who had not undergone surgery.

Those are rare characteristics for those whose bodies end up at the anatomy board. The young usually die through trauma, the aged from debilitating illnesses after fractures and surgeries.

For a brief time, Mr. Wade considered using the body of John Thanos, the 45-year old murderer who was executed in May and had donated his body to science.

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