There are countless funeral traditions around the world, and ancient Egyptian burial customs are among the most intriguing. Their practices were elaborate and capture the interest of many to this day. Ancient Egyptians believed in immortality past death–or an afterlife in which they would live as they did on earth. Each of their funeral and burial customs prepared the deceased for this afterlife. Over the years, archeologists and historians have uncovered many artifacts and works of art that provide insight into these unique customs.
Preparing the Deceased
Much like today, the ancient Egyptians embalmed the bodies of the deceased to preserve them. It took the civilization centuries to develop this process. Before embalming was established, the people buried the dead in the desert where the dry heat and sand created natural “mummies” without the need for embalming. This was important to the Egyptians as they believed the departed would need their bodies in the afterlife and thus needed to be preserved.
The afterlife, to the Egyptians, was not the same as many consider it in the modern world. They believed the deceased would move on to “The Field of Reeds,” which was thought to be another Egypt, without pain or sadness and life among the gods.
Funerals in Ancient Egypt
In ancient Egypt, individuals cast magic spells on the bodies of the deceased. Additionally, those who came to mourn the body wore mud on their faces and paraded through the streets, pounding their chests. After the process of embalming was complete, members of the community came together to play out a judgment of the gods as a symbol of the sacred journey to the afterlife.
Much like today, the ancient Egyptians carried out funeral processions. These processions led to the tomb where the mummified body was to be placed. Instead of pallbearers, cattle pulled the body while loved ones followed behind.
Once at the tomb, a priest would be present to perform one last sacred act. This was known as the Opening of the Mouth. A priest would turn the head of the deceased toward the South. The ancient Egyptians believed this process provided the dead with an opportunity to speak during the judgment of the gods. Finally, mourners and loved ones provided gifts to be put into the tomb for the deceased to carry into the afterlife.
While Egyptian kings were often buried in elaborate pyramids, those of lesser status received ground burials. Bodies were wrapped in linen and buried in the desert. Poor families often used mass burial sites. However, bodies were still sent to the afterlife with material objects. For the poor, they buried loved ones with whatever they could afford.
Items that the Egyptians sent with loved ones to The Field of Reeds included household objects, weapons, food and drink, jewelry, clothing, and more. Anything the deceased may need in the afterlife went into the burial space, tomb, or pyramid with them. Kings were often buried with all of their riches.
Comparisons to Modern Day Traditions
While the embalming process used by ancient Egyptians is one burial custom that is similar to those we use today, there were other aspects of the process that are also very much the same. For example, the Egyptians placed embalmed bodies in coffins, just as we do caskets. These coffins were made of wood and personalized to represent the deceased individual’s life.
Tombs: Mastabas and Pyramids
Additionally, mastabas and pyramids were much like the private mausoleums of the modern-day. Mastabas were structures made from mud bricks that held the coffin inside. They were square buildings with decorative pillars outside the entrance, very closely resembling what we now know as mausoleums.
Over time mastabas evolved into the pyramids we so often associate with Egyptian culture. These structures protected coffins from the elements and served as a place where loved ones could come to pay respects. Pyramids were generally reserved for the wealthy, those who could afford to build them, while mastabas remained a popular choice along with ground burials for others.
Pyramids and mastabas also held coffins of the deceased, just as mausoleums house caskets today. The pyramids of kings held entire temples where people could gather. Today, mausoleums are in parks with communal areas where loved ones can visit to pay respects. There are often benches and seating areas for individuals to gather.
Also, much like today, tombs and burials were located in close proximity both to each other as well as the homes of loved ones. They did not often stand alone. Very similar to a modern-day cemetery, bodies of the deceased were close together.
This provided families the opportunity to visit generations of loved ones who had passed at the same time, much like family mausoleums or family cemetery plots.
The burial customs of ancient Egyptians were rich with culture, and each step from the preparation of the body to the final resting place was full of ritual. Just as we do today, the ancient Egyptians believed the deceased to be sacred, deserving of a serene and peaceful resting place.