Mellified man, or human mummy confection, was a legendary medicinal substance created by steeping a human cadaver in honey. The concoction is mentioned only in Chinese medical sources, most significantly the Bencao Gangmu of the 16th-century Chinese medical doctor and pharmacologist Li Shizhen. Relying on a second-hand account, Li reports a story that some elderly men in Arabia, nearing the end of their lives, would submit themselves to a process of mummification in honey to create a healing confection.
This process differed from a simple body donation because of the aspect of self-sacrifice; the mellification process would ideally start before death. The donor would stop eating any food other than honey, going as far as to bathe in the substance. Shortly, his feces (and even his sweat, according to legend) would consist of honey. When this diet finally proved fatal, the donor’s body would be placed in a stone coffin filled with honey.
After a century or so, the contents would have turned into a sort of confection reputedly capable of healing broken limbs and other ailments. This confection would then be sold in street markets as a hard to find item with a hefty price.
Allegedly from Arabia, the mellified man legend was reported by 16th-century Chinese pharmacologist Li Shizhen in his Bencao Gangmu. It is described in the final section (52, “Man as medicine”) under the entry for munaiyi(“mummy”):
[MUNAIYI]. HUMAN MUMMY CONFECTION
Li [Shizhen]: According to [Tao Jiucheng] in the[Chuogenglu “Record after retiring from plowing”], it says in Arabia there are men 70 to 80 years old who are willing to give their bodies to save others. The subject does not eat food, he only bathes and partakes of honey. After a month he only excretes honey (the urine and feces are entirely honey) and death follows. His fellow men place him in a stone coffin full of honey in which he macerates. The date is put upon the coffin giving the year and month. After a hundred years the seals are removed. A confection is formed which is used for the treatment of broken and wounded limbs. A small amount taken internally will immediately cure the complaint. It is scarce in Arabia where it is called mellified man.
Mr. [Tao] has recorded it in this way but Li [Shizhen] the author of this [Bencao] does not know whether it is true so he is recording it for others to verify.
In her book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, writer Mary Roach observes that Li Shizhen “is careful to point out that he does not know for certain whether the mellified man story is true.”
Honey has been used in funerary practices in many different cultures. Burmese priests have the custom of preserving their chief abbots in coffins full of honey. Its reputation both for medicinal uses and durability is long established. For at least 2,700 years, honey has been used by humans to treat a variety of ailments through topical application, but only recently have the antiseptic and antibacterial properties of honey been chemically explained.
Because of its unique composition and the complex processing of nectar by bees which changes its chemical properties, honey is suitable for long-term storage and is easily assimilated even after long preservation. History has many examples of honey preserved for decades, centuries and even millennia.
Antibacterial properties of honey are the result of the low water activity causing osmosis, hydrogen peroxide effect, and high acidity. The combination of high acidity, hygroscopic, and antibacterial effects have led to honey’s reputation as a plausible way to mummify a human cadaver, despite lack of concrete evidence.