We all know about the ancient Egyptian pyramids. Many of us also know that they’re tombs for great pharaohs of history. Due to the grandeur of the pyramids, you might not be surprised to hear that traditional Egyptian burials are rich with rituals. But did you know that rituals extended to the common people as well?
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Ancient Egyptian Views of Death and Dying
- What Happened During Ancient Egyptian Burials?
- Egyptian Burial Grounds and Graves
- Modern Egyptian Burials
Ancient Egyptian burial practices reflected Egyptians’ core religious beliefs. Egyptian burial practices today don’t mirror those of the past, so this guide will cover both, explaining why Egyptians performed certain rituals when burying the dead and how those practices have changed over the years.
Learning about death in different cultures is a window into those cultures’ histories and values, and allows you to reflect on your own culture. Let’s dive in.
Ancient Egyptian Views of Death and Dying
Ancient Egyptians typically didn’t live much longer than 40 years. They knew that their lives were short. This is one of the main reasons their culture involved a significant focus on death and dying.
Ancient Egyptians certainly believed in an afterlife. They didn’t believe death was necessarily the end of one’s life. They believed that a person’s life continued after they died. They merely transitioned to a different stage of existence.
This is one of the key reasons Egyptian burial practices often involved mummification and entombment when important figures died. They believed they needed to adhere to strict mummification rules to ensure the deceased would live on in the world of the dead.
However, according to ancient Egyptian beliefs, not all people went to the same afterlife. Your class and status while you were alive determined where your soul would go when you died. If a person was not a royal, their afterlife (assuming they had lived virtuously) might very closely resemble their actual life, with only the pleasant aspects and none of the unpleasant. If someone was a king, they could join the gods in the afterlife.
A difficult voyage
Although ancient Egyptians believed that a person could experience a pleasant afterlife, they didn’t believe that reaching it was easy. Ancient Egyptian beliefs held that when a person died, they had to pass a series of tests. They relied on instructions from the Book of the Dead, as well as helpful amulets and similar objects, to help them navigate.
Those who passed the tests would eventually meet the Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead. Osiris would cast judgment by placing their heart on a scale, with the feather of truth on the other side. A balanced scale indicated a person had lived a virtuous life and could safely proceed to the next stage of the afterlife in the Field of Reeds.
However, if the scale did not balance, Ammit, the Eater of the Dead, a monster with the head of a crocodile, would (as you may have guessed) eat the deceased. The devoured would go on to an afterlife of pain and unhappiness.
Researchers don’t know everything about ancient Egyptian beliefs. What they do know comes from artifacts and documents of the time. Naturally, that means their understanding of ancient Egyptian beliefs regarding the afterlife is somewhat incomplete.
Scholars don’t agree whether the ancient Egyptians believed in reincarnation. Egyptian beliefs that may align with the idea of reincarnation are somewhat complex.
Essentially, the ancient Egyptians believed that the natural world was cyclical. Like the cycle of the seasons, or the way the sun rises and falls every day, Egyptians considered humans to exist in a natural cycle as well.
Some researchers conclude that to some degree, the Egyptians believed a person’s essential soul (Ba) returned to a state of unity with nature after their death, where they may be born again. However, it’s unclear whether the ancient Egyptians believed people would return to Earth in new bodies when they were reborn, or whether they would be reborn in another world or realm.
What Happened During Ancient Egyptian Burials?
Burial customs in ancient Egypt varied depending on someone’s status, and the period of time when they died. Generally, the processes involved:
Ancient Egyptian burial practices included mummification due to the belief that a preserved body was key to ensuring a person’s survival in the afterlife.
The process started as soon as an important person died. Someone would bring them to an embalmer. An essential part of their job involved removing as much moisture from the body as possible. This is because a dry body would be less prone to decay over time.
Mummification also involved removing all internal organs that might otherwise decay in the body. This included the brain.
Those performing mummifications had to be very careful, as they were not supposed to disfigure the deceased’s face during the process. When they had removed the organs, they would place them in jars for preservation which they would later bury with the body. In later versions of the mummification ritual, they would sometimes treat and wrap the organs, then place them back into the deceased’s body.
The only organ they wouldn’t remove was the heart. This is because they believed a heart contained a person’s intelligence and essence.
Once the embalmers had removed all organs and dried the body, the wrapping process began. This required hundreds of yards of linen. Those wrapping mummies were often so careful they would even wrap the individual fingers and toes. While the embalming and wrapping process was happening, other craftsmen would prepare the tomb, which had to be ready by a strict deadline.
In total, the mummification process typically lasted 70 days.
Burial practices and rituals
Ancient Egyptian burial practices changed over time. They could also differ depending on a person’s status.
For instance, during one period of Egyptian history, family members of a deceased person would appear before a council of 42 judges to explain why the person was worthy of burial. If the judges deemed them worthy, they would place the body on a boat in the Nome Lake. The boat took the body to the other side to be buried.
Some burials involved burying a deceased’s pet with them. If a pet outlived its owner, Egyptians would sometimes wait for it to die before burying outside its owner’s tomb. In some instances, when a king or other elite figure died, Egyptians would select a few of their servants to die as well, so they could bury them around the tomb.
Role of priests
Priests played an important role in the mummification process. They were often the ones who wrapped the deceased. Additionally, they would perform the “Opening of the Mouth” ceremony before burial.
This ceremony involved touching the mummy on key spots using a special instrument. Ancient Egyptians believed this reawakened the senses in the body. This allowed the deceased to experience those senses in the afterlife. At the end of the ceremony, the priest would touch the mummy’s mouth, allowing the deceased to speak and eat in the afterlife as well.
Egyptian Burial Grounds and Graves
Ancient Egyptian burial practices used to involve simply burying people in the ground. Tombs and pyramids became more popular as the rich and elite desired more elaborate burials.
However, even as tombs become more commonplace, a person’s status still determined where Egyptians would bury them. For instance, they buried lower status people in shaft tombs in cemeteries.
When an elite died, ancient Egyptians would bury them in a much more ornate tomb, which often included furniture, statues, and similar “grave goods.” They would also decorate the tombs with instructions to help a deceased person navigate the afterlife.
Modern Egyptian Burials
It’s safe to say that modern Egyptian burial practices are quite different from the mummification process of the past. For instance, today, Egyptians may cremate a deceased person. They would not have done so back when they believed that preserving a person’s body was essential to their survival in the afterlife.
That’s not to say that all Egyptians cremate their deceased loved ones. Because most Egyptians today are Muslim, they follow relatively traditional Muslim burial and funeral practices. This often involves allowing family members and friends to gather at a small family mausoleum to pay their last respects, before transporting the deceased’s body to a cemetery for burial.
Burying the Dead: What Different Practices Teach Us
Death is common no matter your culture. How we treat the dead can tell us a lot about what we value in life. When we ask questions like “Why do we bury the dead?” we start to find that the exact reasons vary from one culture to another.
Ancient Egyptians believed in preserving the dead so the soul could live on in the afterlife. While that belief may not be commonplace today, it explains why ancient Egyptian burial practices involved such elaborate and strict rituals.
- “Death and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt.” Museum of Art and Archaeology University of Missouri, Curators of the University of Missouri, maa.missouri.edu/gallery/death-and-afterlife-ancient-egypt
- de Motte, Earle. “Egyptian Religion and Mysteries.” Xlibris Corporation, 2013, Print.
- “Egyptian Mummies.” Smithsonian, The Smithsonian Institution, www.si.edu/spotlight/ancient-egypt/mummies
- Nianias, Helen. “How to survive the afterlife like an ancient Egyptian.” BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/5q3jGvxmSQJ40m7l2ljzkTf/how-to-survive-the-afterlife-like-an-ancient-egyptian
- Start, Ashley. “Ancient Egyptian Burial Practices.” Michigan State University, 9 October 2014, anthropology.msu.edu/anp455-fs14/2014/10/09/ancient-egyptian-burial-practices/
- “The Afterlife in Ancient Egypt.” PBS, 3 January 2006, www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/afterlife-ancient-egypt/
- Tomorad, Mladen. “Ancient Egyptian funerary practices from the first millennium BC to the Arab conquest of Egypt (c. 1069 BC-642 AD).” The Heritage of Egypt, 2009, www.academia.edu/907351/Ancient_Egyptian_funerary_practices_from_the_first_millenium_BC_to_the_Arab_conquest_of_Egypt_c._1069_BC-642_AD_The_Heritage_of_Egypt_vol._2_no._2_issue_5_May_2009_Cairo_2009_12-28?auto=download