(Illustration courtesy Oriental Institute; photography by Jeanie Chung)
Life, death, and candy

Mummies Night at the Oriental Institute.

Even though kids’ Halloween costumes today lean more toward Disney characters than witches, vampires, or mummies, as far as I’m concerned those creatures make the holiday what it is. So while we didn’t necessarily expect anything spooky at the Oriental Institute’s Mummies Night, well, I kind of did. We began the evening at the mummy demonstration, which was basically a live version of this game on the OI’s website, led by demonstrators dressed as a pharaoh, an Egyptian priest, and Indiana Jones, well known for his ties to the institute. As a preschooler in a bumblebee costume, a grade-school-aged Captain America, and other kids took turns removing the organs from the OI’s “dummy mummy,” my seven-year-old daughter, who has played the game a few times, noted that they skipped the step where they cover the body with natron. Too messy, I said. [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"1972","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"196","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"460"}}]] Next it was on to the Mummy Challenge, where my daughter looked up the answers to questions about Meresamun, a female mummy at the OI, finding what she had done when she was alive, how tall she was, and what the word “amun” meant. Meresamun is, of course, an actual mummified corpse of a once-living person, but my daughter did not seem to think this was worth dwelling on. In fact, throughout all of this activity, and then as she made her own mummy out of tongue depressors and gauze, neither she nor any other kid seemed to think there was anything particularly creepy or scary going on. My kid was much more focused on her Sphinx-themed trick-or-treat bag, decorated with a winged half-bull/half-dog on one side and a bull-snake-lizard on the other. For the most part, the kids were just getting into the spirit of intellectual and scientific inquiry, UChicago style. But I liked to think there was another reason. While we were in the galleries we checked out In Remembrance of Me: Feasting with the Dead in the Ancient Middle East, an exhibit exploring the ways different cultures maintain connections with the dead. In addition to artifacts from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Turkey, and Syria, the display included something more familiar, and timely: calaveras from Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations. We talked about how, in many cultures, people who die aren’t really gone as long as there is someone to remember them—and maybe put out some wine and a haunch of meat every now and then. Death doesn’t have to be scary. Death is, well, part of life. To top the night off, two volunteers handed out Halloween candy for the new trick-or-treat bags. We have no reason to fear death, but at that point it was good to be among the living.