The Uneasy Life of a Middle East Skeleton

Max the Skeleton and Family

Meet Max. In skeleton-years he is at least 55.

Max came to our home about three years ago, and I must confess we have not treated him very well. At the time of his arrival our young children had Egyptian friends playing over the house, and we are unsure if there was any unspoken trauma from a dead man being hauled through the front door.

The friends have continued to come, so no great damage done. But uncertain comments from parents convinced us to keep him in the storage room thereafter.

Accessible, but out of the way. Part of the house, but not part of life. I suppose that’s fitting—being dead and all—but it still seems cruel.

In the Middle East it is often observed that some parents hide away children with mental or physical disabilities. This pattern is changing, but a sense of shame has condemned many to at-home isolation.

Have we treated Max similarly?

The cultural pattern for death is somewhat similar. Muslim tradition demands a body be buried almost immediately. Unlike the West where a mortician will preserve for final goodbyes at a later-scheduled funeral, the shock of death is quickly muted. So also is grief, at least for half of society. Women may wail and cry out in pain. Men are expected to resign themselves to the will of God, and move on.

So for those who knew, it must have been very strange that we have dead bones in our closet.

Or, had. We recently moved Max to a suitable institution, finding for him a welcoming home. But we signed no paperwork, neither to receive him nor pass him on.

Here also we may resemble Middle East culture. Children in difficult situations may be taken in by relatives or others, but there is no formal adoption. Islam forbids the transfer of family heritage, lest ancient lineages become corrupted.

But we should pause here and say a word about Max. Consistent with all the above-mentioned taboos, we have so far ignored him and spoken only about ourselves and the expectations that press upon the region.

Unfortunately, we cannot say much.

Max likely belonged to a medical school in Cairo at least as far back as 1962. The sister of an Egyptian friend graduated from the university, did her internship, and somehow came in possession of what must have been a favored learning tool.

In time, much like in our story but considerably worse for him, Max wound up in a trunk in her parent’s basement. Several years later our friend found him, and passed him on to her friend taking a dental exam. Max doesn’t have too many teeth, but I suppose his jaw was sufficient.

This was around the same time we visited our friend. It is hard to recall the conversation, but one of our daughters must have expressed an interest in science. Perhaps we even asked about a skeleton, if the plastic versions were available in Egypt.

Little did we know our friend had the real thing. After succeeding in the dental exam, our friend’s friend drove Max to our home, where he has resided since.


Until now. We have changed apartments, and in the purge we had to make a decision about Max. I would love for him to rest next to one of our children’s beds, or even dwell with us in the family room. We value learning – we have maps on our walls, we have books on our shelves.

But we also have friends who visit. I recently brought back from America a favored wall hanging of a ‘Wise Old Owl who lived in an oak,’ that was in my room since childhood. We displayed it prominently, until Egyptian friends reminded us that an owl is an ill omen in Arab culture. So much for wisdom.

The owl poem continues: ‘The more he saw, the less he spoke. The less he spoke, the more he heard. Why can’t we all be like that bird?’

Applying the poem with its cultural implications suggested we should at least move the owl to the privacy of our bedroom. And perhaps it suggested also the fate of Max.

Until fate intervened. In lamenting Max on Facebook during our moving process, friends in the administration of a local international school mentioned they had long desired a skeleton. Our oldest daughter was joining the student body after doing her elementary years in the Egyptian system, so it seemed a perfect match.

We restore Max to his original educational purpose, but family is still there to help with his transition.

The last question was how to move him. Around the time Max came to our home I purchased a medical IV stand, and the hook in his head hung him in place.

We amusedly considered rolling him down the street in procession with our family, but thought the neighbors already consider us odd enough foreigners.


Max in Car

In the end the school came with a car, and we laid Max down on the lowered back seat.

Perhaps it recalled one of no-longer-alive-Max’s first memories.

Despite the lightness of this post, there is a serious point. Christians believe two things about Max: He was made in God’s image, and he will be bodily resurrected.

Different cultures demand different customs concerning the dead. But immediate burial, final viewing, preserving relics, quiet cremation, and funeral pyres are all expressions of the same impulse: Honor.

A principle means of honoring life is right treatment in death. There is something sacred that lingers. It must be remembered.

It may also be employed. God intends us to enjoy our life, but to find this enjoyment in service of others. Death can be an extension: When my mother died, she donated her body to science.

Maybe Max did the same.

In any case, he has a new home. The school may or may not struggle with the same issues we did, but at least Max is now back to his proper place in education.

We don’t know the details, but perhaps Max also knew God’s proper place in life. May we all, before we all become Max.

Emma and Max the Skeleton

37 replies on “The Uneasy Life of a Middle East Skeleton”

This was great writing and thinking. Thanks so much.

I wish we had become better acquainted with you (and Max and your family) when we were in Egypt.

Be well.

Cinda Gorman


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Loved reading about Max. I am an Egyptian but have lived in the UK my whole ife. I often get pulled up for some cultural mistake. I love the ex pat life as well. I lived in Kuwait for a while and love that even within the middle east there are different lifestyles and cultures bubbling together.

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