Certain mummies may be chemically transformed into adipocere, or ‘grave wax’. (This links to a pretty comprehensive site on the subject which includes some very, very grisly photos, so buckle your seatbelt. Probably NSFW.)
When a body is subject to wet conditions for a period of time, it can transform into a kind of soap.
When I was a child, the Smithsonian Institution displayed, among countless other human bodies in the various display halls, the body of The Soap Man, the butter-colored corpse of a victim of a Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic from the late 1700s, William von Ellenbogen.
Sadly, in my opinion, the display of human corpses has become generally frowned upon in the context of institutions of higher learning, and with some exceptions, one by one the skulls and femurs have moved into storage.
The imeptus for this change was the passage of the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act. Unsurprisingly, the great majority of the human remains on display in museums across this great nation of ours were once inhabited by members of Native American culture.
The wide range of Indian remains on display at the Smithsonian and elsewhere reflected the interest in physical anthropology that dominated the developing discipline between 1875 and the beginning of the First World War. In a recent New Yorker piece on the great German-American anthropologist Franz Boas, this set of interests and the agenda – that of seeking to prove or disprove racial superiority and purity, frequently via braincase measurements – was detailed at length. The article in question is The Measure of America by Claudia Roth Pierpont, and appeared in the March 8, 2004 issue The New Yorker. For some reason, I found the article here, in what appears to be a stray Lexis-Nexis feed.
The approriate decision to remove the Amerindian remains appears to have prompted a reconsideration of the educational purpose of displaying soap mummies.
The accidental educational message of some of the displayed material is quite clear. Chicago’s human body slices (linked above) are visibly drawn from persons of African-American heritage, and the implication can’t have been lost on the generations of African-American teens that have poured through that city’s Museum of Science and Industry since the slices were first installed.
Yet the most important educational message that the soap man taught me as a child was that science could be spooky and entertaining and a source of mystery and thrills. The subtext to this message was a salutary hostility to superstition. The Soap Man was not an imperialist trophy or statement of racial inequity; he was a scientific curiosity, whose supposed educational message (fat becomes soap when leached with certain chemicals) was greatly overshadowed by his entertainment value and consequent demystification of death and corpses. I worry a bit, I guess, about the abandonment of the field to vernacular exhibitors and well-financed ghouls.
A footnote for Seattle readers:
One of Boas’ most important collecting partners in his trips to the Northwest to build his collections for the NYC-based American Museum of Natural History was the store that today displays Sylvester and Sylvia, our own beloved Curiosity Shop. Boas also worked for Chicago’s Field Museum, to a lesser extent. The store helped with all of the US-based anthropological collecting expeditions to the Northwest at the turn of the century, and in effect, when you stand in that crowded little corner of the pier and look up into the welter of century-old curios hanging from the rafters, you’re looking through time into part of the world that Sylvester and Sylvia inhabited.