Skip to main content

The Fascinating Stories Behind the World's Best-Preserved Mummies

Jason Ponic works in the exciting world of Hollywood film and television by day and writes by night.

The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, Sicily, in southern Italy.

The Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, Sicily, in southern Italy.

Humans have always had a morbid fascination with death and the dead. Preserving the dead dates back thousands of years. To the ancient Egyptians, death was only the beginning, and embalming bodies was a regular occurrence, as was typical of many ancient cultures. Some dead are mummified as a political statement, others by complete accident.

Tutankhamun may be the most famous mummy in the world, but he certainly is not the most well-preserved. There are other examples of mummification, either natural or otherwise, that leave King Tut for dead, no pun intended.

Here are some of the world's best-preserved mummies; each has its tale to tell. The stories behind some of these corpses is nothing short of mind-blowing.

Alive, Eva Perón was considered one of the most beautiful women in Argentina.

Alive, Eva Perón was considered one of the most beautiful women in Argentina.

The Remains of Eva "Evita" Perón

When she died from cancer in 1952, Eva Perón was perhaps the most beloved woman in Argentina at the time. She was the first wife of then Argentinean President Juan Perón. This fueled the decision to embalm her body.

The procedure was performed by renowned professor of anatomy, Dr. Pedro Ana. His embalming technique was so good, it was commonly referred to as the "Art of Death." The year-long procedure included replacing the body's blood and water with glycerin, resulting in the preservation of all internal organs, even the brain.

Her body was placed on display until a military coup overthrew the government and Juan Perón. The body was then secretly removed by the new government and hidden for sixteen years in Italy. During that time, the body was subject to many escapades, including vandalism with a hammer and the enactment of sexual fantasies of a caretaker driven mad by the body's lifelike appearance.

In 1971, the exiled Juan Perón was able to reclaim his wife's body and bring it to his Spanish home. In 1974, the body was returned to Argentina, where it was finally buried in the family crypt.

Evita's life has inspired many works of fiction: most notably, a 1978 musical play by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice that has seen many production runs, and a movie in which Madonna played Eva Perón.

Even in death, Evita is uncomfortably lifelike. She is effectively a wax figure after the mummification process replaced all water in the body with wax.

Even in death, Evita is uncomfortably lifelike. She is effectively a wax figure after the mummification process replaced all water in the body with wax.

Evita in 1952 just after the mummification process finished.

Evita in 1952 just after the mummification process finished.

Vladimir Lenin's Embalmed Body

He was the father of Russian Communism and the first leader of the Soviet Union. His death in 1924 marked the Soviet Union's decline into Stalinism.

The government decided to preserve the body of Lenin for future generations. As their culture had no practice or record of the process, the Russians had to invent a highly complex process of embalming.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

Unlike Evita's mummified corpse, which required little post-embalming maintenance, Lenin's requires extensive chemical baths, injections, and evaluation. The body's organs were removed and replaced with a humidifier and pumping system designed to maintain the body's core temperature and fluid intake.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the people of Russia are split on the decision to bury Lenin for good.

When the Soviet Union existed, Lenin's suit was changed once a year. Since the fall of the communist nation, the mummy's suit is changed every five years.

When the Soviet Union existed, Lenin's suit was changed once a year. Since the fall of the communist nation, the mummy's suit is changed every five years.

John Torrington's Frozen Remains

Sometimes, mother nature can preserve a body in ways embalmers can only dream. Meet John Torrington, petty officer of the fabled Franklin Expedition to the Arctic Circle. He died of pneumonia and lead poisoning at age 20 and was buried in the frozen tundra along with three others at one of the expedition's camp sites.

In the 1980s, his grave was exhumed by scientists in an attempt to discover the cause of the expedition's failure. When they opened the coffins and thawed the solid blocks of ice inside, they were astonished and frightened by what they saw. John Torrington stared back at them, literally.

Frozen in a block of ice for over 150 years, the body was nearly perfectly preserved. The only signs of decay were visible around the eyelids and lips. He still wore the cloths he died in, and his arms and legs were still tied together (which made burial easier). A handkerchief was even tied around his head to keep his jaw closed.

Blood samples revealed toxic levels of lead in his system, a result of poor food storage onboard the ship. In his lungs were found the preserved remnants of pneumonia.

In addition to Torrington, the expedition exhumed the bodies of John Hartnell and William Braine. Both were also frozen in time.

John Torrington

John Torrington

John's feet were lashed together shortly after his death for storage.

John's feet were lashed together shortly after his death for storage.

Archeologists were giving quite a terrifying shock when they removed the blankets that covered John Torrington's face. John Torrington was literally staring back at them.

Archeologists were giving quite a terrifying shock when they removed the blankets that covered John Torrington's face. John Torrington was literally staring back at them.

John's nose is actually dark due to the blue wool blanket that was placed over his face by the Franklin crew. The polka-dotted cloth around his head was originally to keep his jaw closed before rigor mortis.

John's nose is actually dark due to the blue wool blanket that was placed over his face by the Franklin crew. The polka-dotted cloth around his head was originally to keep his jaw closed before rigor mortis.

Rosalia Lombardo, the Child Mummy

Deep in the Catacombs of the Capuchin Monks in Sicily, inside a tiny glass casket, lies the body of little Rosalia Lombardo. When she died in 1918 of pneumonia, her father General Lombardo was devastated. He sought the services of Italian embalmer Alfredo Salafia to preserve her.

Using a mixture of chemicals (including formalin, zinc salts, alcohol, salicylic acid and glycerin), the end result was nothing short of extraordinary. The body was so well-preserved, she became known as "Sleeping Beauty."

For over 80 years, she has remained perfectly preserved. Only in the last five years have signs of decay appeared. In response, the glass casket was moved to a drier end of the Catacombs and placed inside an airtight, nitrogen-filled glass case.

Changes in temperature within the catacombs have resulted in a unsettling phenomenon with Rosalia's tiny body. As the temperature fluctuates, the mummy's eyelids will partially open, revealing her intact eyes underneath.

To date, she receives more visitors than any other individual in the catacombs.

The Child Mummy (100 years young) is Rosalia Lombardo. When she died in Sicily in 1920 of pneumonia, her father was so upset he had her preserved forever.

The Child Mummy (100 years young) is Rosalia Lombardo. When she died in Sicily in 1920 of pneumonia, her father was so upset he had her preserved forever.

She's considered by many as the best-preserved mummy anywhere, but people flock to see her for more than that. Her popularity points to the eternal draw a child can have on those around her.

She's considered by many as the best-preserved mummy anywhere, but people flock to see her for more than that. Her popularity points to the eternal draw a child can have on those around her.

This x-ray taken of Rosalia's corpse shows her brain and internal organs are intact although they've shrunk over time.

This x-ray taken of Rosalia's corpse shows her brain and internal organs are intact although they've shrunk over time.

In this 2009 Italian documentary, Rosalia's body was sent through a CT scan. The scientists were shocked to find all of her internal organs perfectly intact! Her brain had shrunk to almost half its original size.

La Doncella, a Frozen Incan Sacrifice

Over 500 years ago, 15-year-old La Doncella and two other children were left to freeze to death in a ritual sacrifice. Sitting cross-legged high atop Mount Llullaillaco, she was drugged with chicha and coca leaves to induce a heavy sleep and left to die as an offering to the Sun God.

In 1999, archaeologists discovered the remains of La Doncella and the two other children, the latest of several unbelievable sacrificial finds in the Andes Mountains. The eldest of the three children, La Doncella, was a "Sun Virgin," a child chosen at an early age to be raised as a sacrifice for the Sun God. She lived a royal life until the day of sacrifice.

Her elaborately braided hair simply astonished her discoverers. Scientists even found a few grey hairs, suggesting that her knowledge of her ultimate fate took a deep emotional toll.

Appearing as if she could awake at any time, La Doncella gives us a look at how the ancient Inca dressed.

Appearing as if she could awake at any time, La Doncella gives us a look at how the ancient Inca dressed.

Strands of grey hair were found in her braids, suggesting a very stressful life.

Strands of grey hair were found in her braids, suggesting a very stressful life.

The Wet Mummy Discovered During Road Construction in China

Imagine an average construction worker, digging a foundation for a new road with a backhoe, suddenly uncovers a national treasure. That's exactly what happened in China in March of 2012. Submerged for 600 years in a waterlogged coffin, a remarkably preserved Ming Dynasty mummy was discovered in the center of a modern metropolis during a construction project!

The five-foot-tall woman was fully clothed and buried with many fine pieces of jewelry, including a silver hairpin that still held her hair in place and a huge jade ring on her finger. Atop her wooden coffin was a simple silver medallion known as an Exorcism Coin placed there to protect the body from evil spirits.

The mummy has been transported to Taizhou Museum for study.

Sometimes, the best mummies are discovered by accident.

Sometimes, the best mummies are discovered by accident.

A huge jade ring found on the mummy's hand.

A huge jade ring found on the mummy's hand.

Lady Dai Xin Zhui, the Best-Preserved Mummy Ever

Lady Dai Xin Zhui is undisputedly the best preserved mummy ever found: not in terms of physical appearance, but in the simple completeness of her body. Unlike Lenin, her internal organs are perfectly intact, including her brain. Unlike Evita, her tissues are still soft to the touch, her limbs flexible. Her hair is complete and there is type-A blood in her veins!

Here is the most astonishing part: She is 2,100 years old! Meet Xin Zhui, aka Lady Dai, the Diva Mummy.

The wife of the ruler of the Han Imperial Flefdom of Dai, she died between 178 and 145 BC at age 50. She was buried in a titanic-sized tomb with exotic foods, dinnerware, and fabrics. The body itself was immersed in a mysterious liquid, no doubt responsible for the amazing preservation.

The state of the preservation has given archaeologists the single most complete medical profile ever compiled of an ancient human being. The pristine condition of the body allowed for a modern-day autopsy, which revealed many clues about her life.

She was overweight, suffered from lower back pain, had clogged arteries, and had a severely damaged heart. She is the oldest diagnosed case of heart disease. Until her discovery, medical experts had argued that heart disease only existed in modern times.

Unlike the mummies of ancient Egypt, this one still has blood in her veins and is soft to the touch.

Unlike the mummies of ancient Egypt, this one still has blood in her veins and is soft to the touch.

With her lips shrunken and curled back, her bloated tongue can be seen jutting from her mouth.

With her lips shrunken and curled back, her bloated tongue can be seen jutting from her mouth.

The Greenland Mummies

In 1972, eight Eskimo mummies were discovered in a frozen tomb in Qilakitsoq. Essentially freeze-dried in the cold temperature, the mummies were a family. Carbon dating places the tomb at approximately 1460, making them the oldest mummies yet found in Greenland.

Three of them were heavily tattooed women dressed in over 78 pieces of fur and skins. Piled on top of them was a young boy, equally well-dressed, whose face has the distinct features of Down syndrome. X-rays revealed he also suffered from Calve-Perthes disease, his hip joints nearly fused.

Atop all the bodies was a little baby boy, about six months old, who was concluded to have been buried alive atop his mother.

The cause of death is unclear. Some suggested an accidental drowning of the entire family, but no evidence could be found to support this. One of the women did have a tumor growing at the base of her skull and the boy likely died from his Calve-Perthes disease. The infant was buried alive according to ancient Inuit custom. The cause of death of the women remains unknown.

His eyes are open, the eyeballs long gone.

His eyes are open, the eyeballs long gone.

One of the adult Greenland Mummies.

One of the adult Greenland Mummies.

The Beauty of Xiaohe

In 2003, archeologists excavating China's Xiaohe Mudi Graveyards discovered a cache of mummies, including one that would become known as the Beauty of Xiaohe. Hair, skin, and even eyelashes perfectly preserved, the woman's natural beauty is evident even after four millennia.

Her coffin was a wooden boat filled with small pouches that contained herbs. She was dressed in a felted wool hat which designated her status as a priestess, something rare for women. More than 3,800 years ago, she was a village leader.

Due to the natural salinity, aridity, and freeze-drying properties in the air, Xinjiang has produced some of the best naturally preserved mummies in the world, of which the Beauty of Xiaohe represents.

A serene woman with a mysterious story to tell.

A serene woman with a mysterious story to tell.

Few mummies are found with everything that was buried with the body. This one offers clues as to her identity.

Few mummies are found with everything that was buried with the body. This one offers clues as to her identity.

Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov, a Buddhist Monk Mummified in Prayer

He was a Russian Buddhist lama monk who died mid-chant in the lotus posture in 1927. His last testament was a simple request to be buried how he was found. True to his wishes, he was buried in the lotus position, wearing the robes he died in.

In 1955, the monks exhumed his body and discovered it to be incorrupt. It was again exhumed in 1973 to the same discovery. In a time when Soviet antitheistic authorities policed the Russian State, the findings were not announced until 2002.

After being declared a sacred relic by the Buddhist conference, the body was placed in a namesake shrine where it remains to this day.

Dying mid chant results in a very peaceful face.

Dying mid chant results in a very peaceful face.

The Catholics call these bodies "incorruptible," but I'm not sure what the Buddhists would call them.

The Catholics call these bodies "incorruptible," but I'm not sure what the Buddhists would call them.

St. Zita

Natural mummification (or "incorruption") is one of the stipulations the Catholic Church requires for an individual to canonized as a saint. One remarkable example is Zita, a maid who passed away in 1272, servant of a wealthy Italian family who often overworked her.

A spiritual woman, several times she was caught stealing bread to feed the poor. After 48 years of service to the family, she passed away at age 60.

Her body was exhumed in 1580, 300 years after her death, and was discovered to have naturally mummified. She was canonized in 1696 and her body has remained on public display for over 700 years.

Remember this body is over 800 years old. Despite the skin looking like King Tut's, the body is in remarkably good shape for its age.

Remember this body is over 800 years old. Despite the skin looking like King Tut's, the body is in remarkably good shape for its age.

The 800 year old body of St. Zita.

The 800 year old body of St. Zita.

St. Bernadette's Remains

She was born a miller's daughter in 1844 in Lourdes, France. Throughout her life, she reported seeing apparitions of the Virgin Mary on an almost daily basis. One such vision lead her to discover a spring which has been reported to cure illness. 150 years later, the water's miracles are still being reported.

Bernadette died in 1879, at age 35, from tuberculosis. During canonization, her body was exhumed in 1909 and was discovered incorrupt. She was exhumed again in 1919, when doctors noted that the body had mummified with some mold and deterioration to the skin in some areas. In 1925, her body was exhumed a third and final time. Two of her ribs were removed and sent to Rome.

In a common move during the French canonization process, molds were taken of Bernadette's face and hands and wax casts were made and placed over the face and hands. The body was placed in a reliquary in the Chapel of St. Bernadette, where it remains today.

St. Bernadette, alive.

St. Bernadette, alive.

St. Bernadette in death. Her face and hands have been covered in wax.

St. Bernadette in death. Her face and hands have been covered in wax.

St. Bernadette's body lays in a gold reliquary.

St. Bernadette's body lays in a gold reliquary.

St. Virginia Centurione Bracelli

She lived 350 years ago in Genoa, Italy, and after her arranged marriage ended in the death of her husband, a wealthy noble, Virginia began a life of service. She founded Cento Signore della Misericordia Protettrici dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo in the 1620s to help the needy in her area. She spent the remainder of her life in service. In 1985 her body was exhumed and beatified, and in 2003 she was officially canonized.

Artist's depiction of St. Virginia when she lived.

Artist's depiction of St. Virginia when she lived.

St. Virginia today. Unlike St. Bernadette, St. Virginia's face and hands were left uncovered.

St. Virginia today. Unlike St. Bernadette, St. Virginia's face and hands were left uncovered.

Elmur McCurdy's Mummy

Here is a mummy whose life after death was as bizarre as his reputation during life. Elmur McCurdy was an unlucky robber whose unsuccessful exploits cost him his life.

In 1911, he and a gang of robbers attacked a train they believed contained a high value safe. However, they discovered it was nothing more than a passenger train. After fleeing, McCurdy took refuge in a barn and was later shot by the Oklahoma Sheriff's Office on October 7, 1911.

Here's where the story takes an interesting turn. McCurdy's body was taken to Pawhuska, Oklahoma. When the corpse wasn't claimed, the undertaker who embalmed the body put it on display for 5¢ a look. For five years the body was on public display, during which time a bizarre ritual formed where visitors would stuff their ticket stubs and coins into the mummy's mouth.

In 1916, a man claiming to be McCurdy's brother asked for the body, wishing to give it a proper burial. Instead of burial, the body was sent on tour for 60 years of public display in wax museums, carnivals, and fun fairs all across the country. Eventually, the knowledge of the body being a real corpse was forgotten. Owner after owner purchased it, thinking it was nothing more than a bad wax figure.

In 1976 at Queens Park during the filming of an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, the film crew was rearranging the displays and mannequins and discovered McCurdy. One of McCurdy's arms was accidentally broken off, and when they discovered bone inside the arm, authorities were alerted.

During the autopsy, the examiner opened the corpse's mouth and discovered a 1924 penny and a ticket stub. Backtracking later revealed the mummy to be McCurdy. The body still had its original autopsy and embalming incisions and a gunshot wound to the chest. The bullet was discovered lodged in the pelvis.

In 1977, the state finally buried McCurdy under two yards of concrete.

preservedmummies