Why People In China Used To Eat Mellified Man, Human Corpses Dipped In Honey

Published November 2, 2017
Updated June 28, 2020

Sure, those who ate mellified man were cannibals, but at least they covered their human-food in sugar first.

Mellified Man Depiction

Wikimedia CommonsArtist depiction of a mellified man.

Of all the instances of cannibalism found in human history, no one quite practiced it like some in China used to. In these cases, cannibalism came in the form of eating mellified flesh for medicinal purposes.

In 16th century China, mellification was a way for elderly people nearing the end of their lives to donate their body to science. The idea, originally derived from an Arabic recipe, was that they could turn their bodies into medicine that would be ingested by their descendants to alleviate ailments like broken bones.

The process of mellification was a gruesome one.

In short, it consisted of very slowly turning one’s body into a mummified human candy bar.

And that’s not even the worst part — for mellification to be the most effective, the process started while the person was still alive.

To begin, the donor would stop eating anything other than honey, and would occasionally even bathe in it. Soon the honey would begin to build up inside the body and, obviously, because an all-honey diet is not sustainable, the person would die. Then, after death, their body would be placed in a stone coffin filled with honey.

Then, nature would be left to take its course. The coffin would be left closed for up to a century, letting the honey preserve the corpse. Because honey never spoils and has antibacterial properties, it made for an effective preservative.

After a century, the body would have become a sugary glob, and the honey would have become a sort of confection. This “mellified man” confection would then be sold at markets for the treatment of wounds and bone fractures. It would also be consumed orally, as a treatment for internal ailments.

Though the idea has been circulated for centuries, historians have not found concrete proof of mellified men. Some historians believe that the practice of self-mummifying monks and the practice of corpse medicine may have contributed to this legend. However, just because there is no archeological evidence doesn’t mean that the mellified men never existed.

After all, there is hard evidence that the bones and other body parts of recently deceased people were taken as medicine, especially in 16th century China and Arabia, where mellification is said to have originated.

Next, read about the historic European practice of medicinal cannibalism. Then, read about the ancient Buddhist practice of Sokushinbutsu, or self-mummification.

Katie Serena
A former staff writer at All That's Interesting, Katie Serena has also published work in Salon.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.