Mummification is typically connected to the ancient Egyptians, but a small group of Japanese monks developed their own method around a millennium ago. One key difference? They were still alive when the process began. Over the centuries that followed, at least 17 succeeded in mummifying themselves.
The Buddhist monks of the Shingon sect, who lived in the mountainous northern prefecture of Yamagata, Japan, were following in the footsteps of Kūkai, known posthumously as Kōbō Daishi, a ninth-century monk who is said to have meditated so intensively that he entered a state of suspended animation in his tomb.
The goal of the ensuing practice of sokushinbutsu, or “a Buddha in this very body,” was to preserve one's physical body in order to one day return and help others reach nirvana. For the ascetic Shingon monks, this involved undertaking a 1,000-day diet of extreme self-denial (sometimes more than once) consisting only of nuts, buds, and tree roots foraged from the mountainside. The objective was to gradually deplete the body of moisture, fat, and muscle, in order to prevent decay after death. It was also meant to distance the spirit from the physical realm.
After completing the diet, the monk would be ready for his entombment while still alive but close to death. One thousand days later, the monk's remains would be removed from the tomb. If he had successfully warded off decomposition, he would be revered as a sokushinbutsu. The practice was criminalized in the late 1800s, but at least one monk undertook it afterward, dying in 1903.
More about mummies:
- The first mummy to get a passport was Pharaoh Ramesses II; his occupation was listed as "king."
- He's not exactly a mummy, but Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin's embalmed remains can still be seen in Moscow's Red Square.
- More than one million mummies have been uncovered in Egypt; the majority are cats.