Following the Quest of Eternity — Book Review of “To Live Forever”

To Live Forever

To Live Forever – Egyptian Treasures From the Brooklyn Museum” is a companion book by Edward Bleiberg, Curator at Brooklyn Museum for the ongoing traveling exhibition.

Books about funeral religion and practices are abundant, but few can satisfy the need of readers with Egyptomania syndrome. Some are outdated (especially considering the rapid advancement in Egyptology today) and some take too much emphasis on the modern eye’s fascination of ancient civilization and tend to suffer from lack of enough new information. A few stand out with encyclopedic illustrations of royal funerals and tombs, but leave funeral practices of middle class and lower rank people to reader’s own imagination.

To Live Forever addresses these insufficiency of past publication with the aid of world-class collection from the Brooklyn Museum. The book starts with a brief  chapter about the history of ancient Egypt, which serves both as a cap for readers with some background and introduction for first time readers. Then it address the topic in four chapters: funeral belief, mummification, funeral and tombs. Each is elaborated with two different threads: the horizontal thread follows the changes through different periods and dynasties, the other one goes vertically and examines the difference between different social classes (royalty, high officials, middle class, and ordinary people). There is also an underlining curatorial perspective throughout the book which is also fascinating because the author also compares the different scholarly opinions about the topic (from Herodotus to the up-to-date) thus giving the readers a sense of growth, change and controversies in Egyptology.

The social stratification perspective results in  consistent patterns in funeral belief and practices based on Dr. Bleiberg. The first pattern is democratization of the netherworld, which is gradual spread of restricted funeral belief knowledge from the top (royalty) toward the broader base of the social hierarchy. Previous books, some of which may mention the transition from pyramid text to coffin text, seldom give such detailed research-oriented elaboration.  The other pattern is while the royal members “could always command the best materials and the best craftsmanship; people living at other levels of society did their best to obtain what they could to ensure their own eternity.” Ironically, unintended natural-mummification in the desert can be as good as the cost-prohibitive labor-mummification. Although it is true that the rich reach their true eternity through the funeral objects, which are now exhibited in major museums.

While the social stratification thread is written with clarity and authority, the timeline perspective did not deliver anything easy to grasp or conclude. People in different periods followed different practices. The disappearance and reoccurrence of some practices or funeral objects, so far, could not be explained or fully understood. For example, the dis-continuum in using daily-life objects in tombs from the 19th century is given as an observation; or there was a short period in the late 12th dynasty when the diseased bodies were placed on their backs, rather than on their sides inside the coffins. Such information really interests readers who have known the basic practice and are keen to new findings or scholarly conjectures, but perhaps also disappoint them since limited explanation is given.

Overall, this is a great book with a lot of new findings updated by recent scholarly research. The writing is fluent, concise  and well organized.  The pictures of objects from the collection of the Brooklyn Museum make the reading more rewarding.  It can be used as a catalog for the museum visitors who have the access to the exhibition; but more importantly it is a necessary addition to anyone who wants in-depth knowledge of Egyptian funeral belief and practices.

To Live Foreveris available from Amazon or the Brooklyn Museum gift shop.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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