Georgia’s Mingrelian Mummy
Letting go of a dead child is hard for any parent. One Georgian mother has decided that she should not. In the backwoods of western Georgia, Tsiuri Kvaratskhelia has been keeping her dead son preserved for 18 years by using a homemade mummification recipe.
A disturbing TV report from Kvaratskhelia’s house recently left mouths wide open across the country and beyond. Eagerly leading a camera crew into her house, the bereaved mother proudly removed a coffin cover to reveal the (thankfully blurred-out) face of her deceased Joni, who suffered a fatal drug overdose at the age of 22.
Kvaratskhelia said that she and her husband decided to preserve their son so that their grandson can see what a great father he had. “He is not afraid of the dead man; rather he is proud to have such a father,”Kvaratskheli is quoted by Prime Time News as saying.
She was even willing to share a few tips on body preservation. Rubbing the body with alcohol and wrapping it in sheets apparently helps preserve the bones.
The rest of the TV report goes pretty much like an extract from Terry Gilliam’s 2005 movie, Tideland, a dark tale of a little girl sharing a prairie house with her dead father’s body.
In Georgia, the worlds of the dead and the living interact closely. No Georgian social function is complete without a toast to the tsaulebi, or the dearly departed.
But rural Mingrelians, a Georgian ethnic group of which Kvaratskhelia is a member, are especially known for extraordinary ways of celebrating their dead. Usually, it comes merely in the form of prolonged funeral functions, humongous tombstones, poetic epitaphs and annual dine-and-wine visits to graveyards.
Female wailers are sometimes brought in to burst into high-pitched laments on cue, often tuning their cries according to whichever new mourner walks into the house. The bizarre theatrics of Mingrelian funerals are captured in Georgian-French filmmaker Nino Kirtadze’s documentary, Dites à Mes Amis que Je Suis Mort (Tell My Friends that I’m Dead), which opens with a mother presenting her dead son on his birthday with a used BMW, something he had always wanted.
There long have been rumors of some taking things even further-- a father supposedly preserving his son’s body with honey so that he could see his face through a piece of glass over the grave. But until Kvaratskhelia’s story hit national TV, such reports were considered little more than a whacky conversation piece.
Urban Mingrelians tend to part with their dead the way the rest of Georgia does. The deceased is embalmed and made-up, and placed on display for three days for friends and relatives to come and see for a farewell. The burial is followed by a dinner for what can be hundreds of guests. A more intimate gathering of family and friends takes place 40 days after the death; a tradition loosely based on Jesus Christ’s ascension to heaven 40 days after his resurrection. Annual picnics at the graveyard follow.
The funeral rituals tend to turn into a planning nightmare, but Georgians are wont to say that they help the family members take their minds off their loss.
Since the appearance of the reports, many believe Kvaratskhelia needs similar help. There have been calls for law enforcement agencies to make sure the body is buried, but in Georgia hardly anyone will dare to confront a grieving mother. No matter how off-the-wall her ways may be.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi, and author of Tamada Tales.
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