A throwaway line in Star Trek IV quietly suggested the body of a deceased Klingon wasn’t always considered an empty shell – until Discovery.
In Star Trek’s mythos, Klingon culture death is not a time for mourning. It is not a time to clean the body, embalm it, wrap it, or adorn it in any way. Instead, death is a celebration. It is a time of transition, when the spirit enters the realm of Sto’Vo’Kor and the physical remains are unceremoniously disposed of by whichever means prove easiest.
Star Trek: Discovery blazed across our screens on Sunday night, leaving a more complex Klingon culture in her wake. With the two-part premiere delving into their spirituality, we were granted further insight into their death rites.
The Empty Shell
Through the years, viewers have gathered morsels of information on this alien race’s funerary practices. We were already aware, because of episodes such as The Next Generation’s “Heart of Glory”, that those present at the time of death let out a howl-like noise. This is not out of sadness. A good death is a joyful time, when a fallen comrade crosses over to claim a place amongst the honored dead (“The Next Phase”). The death wail is vocalized as a warning, as a signal to the ancestors that another warrior is about to enter Sto’Vo’Kor. Following this the body is disposed of without fanfare. This empty shell holds no significance now. The spirit has moved on.
But perhaps this has not always been the case for the Klingons. Culture is not static. As people adapt to a changing world, culture evolves with them. Some of these changes can be seen in funerary customs.
Anthropogenic Mummification in Klingon Culture
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There is a moment, a mere three words of dialogue, in Star Trek IV that suggests the body of a deceased Klingon once held more meaning. This occurs near the beginning, when Spock identifies and states the cultural significance of a symbol on the screen as a “Klingon mummification glyph”.
One possible explanation for such a glyph is that they may have once prepared bodies this way. Has a change in beliefs occurred?
Ritualistic – or anthropogenic – mummification is not typically an easy process, nor is it a fast one. Egyptian mummies, for example, were prepared through a process that took seventy days.
While it’s possible the glyph was created for a practice they encountered on other planets, it led me to wonder if Klingons once preserved their nobility. And, if so, when did a change in their cultural evolution lead to the body becoming nothing more than a meaningless husk to be tossed aside?
I pondered a Klingon past where anthropogenic mummification once took place on Q’onoS.
Spontaneous Mummification in Extreme Conditions
Mummification doesn’t need to involve embalmers or rituals. It isn’t always a drawn-out process done in the belief it will give the soul a place to return to. Mummification can happen naturally in dry environments – like that of space. This process could be anthropogenic, where mummies are created intentionally for religious reasons. It could also be a natural, spontaneous occurrence once the remains are exposed to the vacuum of space. It is possible to be a combination of the two.
Although space would not instantly destroy all the bacteria that causes decomposition after death, if an unprotected body were to be exposed to a heat source it would dry out. With no heat source, a body would instead freeze. Both would make natural mummification in space a relatively fast process.
If the ornate sarcophagi, used like a shield on the exterior of the Klingon ship in Discovery, were not completely sealed, these Klingons could be participating in a burial practice consisting of both anthropogenic and spontaneous mummification.
Thirty years since Star Trek IV was released, could it be that Discovery has provided us with an explanation for the mummification glyph within the Klingon culture itself?