Most articles about death in ancient Egypt surround mummies. But I’m more interested in their funerary rites. How were the ancient Egyptians buried? Did all of them get mummies and sarcophagi? Let’s go back 5,000 years.
The Ancient Egyptian Soul and the Afterlife
Before we talk about the funerals, I want to clarify some beliefs about the Egyptian afterlife. Most sources talk about the process of the soul entering the afterlife and getting judged (as detailed in The Book of the Dead). But what happens after that?
According to scholar Margaret Bunson, author of the Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, the Egyptian afterlife was not in the clouds or underground. The realm of the dead, known as the Field of Reeds, was a mirror image of life on earth. If the proper funerary rites were carried out, souls could eat, drink, and even party.
In ancient Egyptian theology, the soul consisted of nine parts: the khat, ka, ba, shuyet, akh, ab, sahu, sechem, and ren. For the purposes of this article, the most important ones are the ka and akh.
The ka was the vital force that joined the deceased during the burial. It is not the body itself; that’s the khat. The ka was basically a person’s second form that was present during the funeral. When the Egyptians presented offerings, they gave them to the ka.
The akh is the closest concept to our modern-day ghost. It was an immortal, spiritual self that operated within the realm of the living and the dead. In other words, the akh could affect day-to-day life. The Egyptians worked to keep the akh happy so that the deceased wouldn’t haunt them.
Hauntings were taken very seriously. They could cause illness, bring bad luck, or damage a person’s property. According to the World History Encyclopedia, ancient morticians would advertise their services as making a family haunt-free. On the other hand, the akh was also petitioned in curses. Family members could write to the akh and ask them to haunt another person.
During funerals, ancient Egyptians were trying to do two things: (1) help the soul be happy in the afterlife, and (2) prevent the soul from terrorizing them.
One last thing. There are three deities who will frequently pop up throughout this post, so let’s get familiar with Them:
You might be wondering about Anubis. It’s true that He governed funerals and embalming, but He was mostly worshiped by embalmers. Common folk usually called upon Anubis for protection spells (according to Murry Hope in her book, The Ancient Wisdom of Egypt).
Mummies: Were They Really That Common?
First off, not everyone was mummified. The process was expensive and time-consuming, so most of the time, it was reserved for the wealthy. During the Egyptian Empire (3150 - 332 BCE), mummification became affordable and therefore more common. Even if the poor couldn’t afford mummies, they still had a funeral.
Second, the mummification process changed throughout the centuries. It also changed based on the deceased’s wealth and the area they were buried in. Because of this, I’m not going to spend much time talking about mummies.
I’ll give you a brief overview of the mummification process, based on what I read from scholar Salima Ikram. Embalmers would first remove the brain and internal organs. They then covered the body in natron, a type of salt. According to the Smithsonian, natron would remove all moisture from the body, which would prevent the decomposition process. Once the body was dried, embalmers wrapped the corpse in linen (usually hundreds of yards long). They glued the linen together with gum. The entire process took 70 days.
What happened to the people who weren’t mummified? They were still embalmed, but not fully mummified. Instead of being wrapped in linen, the dead wore their old clothes. They were then placed in a coffin and buried, much like today’s dead. Many were also placed in a sarcophagus, a stone container that held the coffin.
The Coffin and Sarcophagus
Many families would also pay for a sarcophagus. The sarcophagus didn’t just protect the body; it also had spiritual uses. Many were inscribed with hieroglyph spells. One was written vertically down the back of the sarcophagus. It gave the soul strength to eat and move around. Sometimes, instructions were carved inside of the sarcophagus. These are called the Coffin Texts and are a fun read for any death worker. In short, they’re a series of instructions that tells the soul what to do and where to go for a happy afterlife.
Once the family had their coffin and sarcophagus, and the body was embalmed, the funeral could begin.
Most funerals started from the embalmer’s tent. The procession followed the coffin, which was carried on a cart pulled by oxen. Relatives walked along either side of the coffin. Usually, there were at least two priestesses there, one for Isis and one for Nephthys. Relatives carried offerings and the deceased’s belongings. If applicable, one person carried the canopic jar. This jar held the corpse’s organs and was buried with the body.
Herodotus described Egyptian funerals as being dramatic, as people plastered their faces with mud and beat their breasts while mourning. It was believed that the Gods and the person’s soul (ka) could hear everyone’s mourning. Also, larger processions were an indication of the deceased’s high status.
In fact, some Egyptians were even hired to join funerals and mourn. These groups were called the Kites of Nephthys (as Nephthys was often depicted with kites), and they were almost always women. During the procession, they would sing “The Lamentation of Isis and Nephthys,” about the two Goddesses weeping over Osiris. Definitely a dream job.
Some processions included extra priests, dancers, and musicians. Basically, the wealthier the deceased, the more dramatic their funeral was.
So where did the procession go? Like us, the Egyptians had cemeteries. Most were buried in a dry spot west of the Nile, since the corpse would dry out more quickly. In many cases, the coffin and mourners would have to board a boat and sail there.
Once they reached the open grave, priests performed a ritual called the Opening of the Mouth. Remember when I said that the dead could eat and drink? The Opening of the Mouth ensured that the deceased could move their arms, legs, and mouth to fully enjoy the afterlife. (This ritual first appeared during the Old Kingdom, 2613 - 2181 BC).
Pretty much every funeral includes some offering to the deceased. Nowadays, offerings are usually flowers placed on the grave. In ancient Egypt, offerings were buried with the body.
Most offerings were items that the deceased owned. Family members would bury their favorite belongings, believing that these items would join them in the afterlife. Food and drink were also common offerings, mainly bread and beer.
I want to thank these sources for providing me with most of the information in this post.