Mellified Man

Sometimes, a single record can save an obscure practice from historical oblivion. Thanks to Li Shizhen, a 16th-century Chinese pharmacologist, we can still marvel at the delightfully macabre practice of mummifying a human being with honey while still alive, for the purposes of making a medicinal confection of his flesh. In Section 52 (“Man as Medicine”) of Shizhen’s Bencao Gangmu, a famous Ming Dynasty-era Compendium of Materia Medica, he reports of elderly gentlemen in Arabia submitting to this odd treatment as a kind of proto body donation. At a certain point in their decline, they give up all food but honey. They bathe in honey, and when they begin to urinate and excrete only honey, their preparations are complete and they soon die. At that point, their bodies are placed in a stone sarcophagus full of honey, and the date of death is carved into the lid. A hundred years later, the lid is removed and voilà, human honey goo! This “confection” can either be used topically, to treat wounds or broken bones, or ingested. Shizhen concludes: “A small amount taken internally will immediately cure the complaint. It is scarce in Arabia where it is called mellified man.”