5 Different Burial Rites of the Ancient Egyptians

Aditya Chakravarty

5 mins

14 Jun 2019

When we think of the Ancient Egyptians, we think of mummies. The pyramids. Maybe even King Tut’s tomb. Our fascination with Egypt revolves around their lavish approach to death. It’s not just the surface gold and glitter, but on a deeper level it is both difficult and fascinating to comprehend a culture that spent so much time preparing for death.

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Of course Egyptian civilisation lasted for over three thousand years, and in that time their approach to death was not static. And whilst we immediately picture the elaborate tombs of the Pharaohs, not everyone could afford such an elaborate burial. The Egyptians had many different burial rites, which changed both over time and for different strata of society. 

Here are 5 of these practices.

1. The pot burial

Perhaps the oldest form of ritualistic burial discovered in Egypt, pot burials simply consisted of an individual buried within a burial pot. The earliest examples date from the Predynastic Period, before the reigns of the Pharaohs.

There is some debate concerning pot burials after the Old Kingdom, with some scholars arguing that they were only used for infants and the poorest from then on.

Pot that contained the body of a ten year old. Image Credit akhenatenator / Commons

Others maintain that pot burials were a common mode of burial regardless of wealth right through to the Coptic period. It is even reported that some Egyptian rural communities use pot burials in the present day. 

The symbolism of the pot burial is also disputed, partially due to a lack of evidence from so long ago. Common theories posit the pot as a metaphorical womb, symbolising rebirth. Another theory suggests that the pot represented the womb of the sky goddess, through whose body the soul of the deceased would have to travel to reach the afterlife.

Yet another scholar argues that there is no symbolism, and that such theories are over-thinking it. Ultimately there is not enough evidence to truly know, though the idea of a symbolic womb does seem plausible.

2. Mummification

Mummy of an upper-class Egyptian male from the Saite period. Image Credit Keith Schengili-Roberts / Commons

The most famous funerary custom is of course mummification. The aim of mummification was to preserve the body, in order to house the ba and ka, two aspects of the Egyptian soul. The earliest attempts at mummification that we know of are from the Naqada II period, when the formation of states began to occur.

These mummies are unlike the traditional idea we have of them, which mainly come from the New Kingdom some one and a half millennia later. During this long time, the process of mummification evolved. 

The New Kingdom form of mummification involved removing the internal organs and preserving them in canopic jars. The brain was liquefied using a rod, and then removed via the nose. The body was dried using natron (a type of salt) for 40 days, and bandaged for 30.

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During the bandaging oils and resins were applied, and amulets were placed in various places. The word “mummy” comes from the Arabic word for bitumen, which European explorers thought was used to preserve the body. 

There were variations on this procedure, and different styles of mummification. These were often chosen for economic reasons, or simply to due to popular trends. Instead of choosing an Apple or Android phone, the Egyptians chose different ways to mummify their dead. The poor couldn’t afford the full process, but often made some attempt at preserving the body. 

3. Tomb reliefs

Procession of figures with offerings; part of a wall-painting from the tenth tomb at Gourna, Thebes. Image Credit British Library / Commons

Tomb reliefs are one of the major sources of knowledge about Egyptian society. We can all picture the weird full body depictions of the Egyptian, with their heads and legs turned sideways. The reason for this, however, is that the Egyptians understood images to have power.

They were representations of reality, endowed with the essence of the real thing. Tomb reliefs showed everything a person might need in the afterlife, as the images would act as the real objects or people in the afterlife. This is why all parts of the body were shown, so that a person would retain all parts of their body.

Later tombs contained physical objects, so they could quite literally be taken to the afterlife. This is the reason for the lavish tombs of pharaohs such as King Tut. Some early kings even had their servants sacrificed and buried with them. This practice would soon be replaced by shabti, small statues that would act as representations of servants. 

4. Inscriptions

The walls of tombs weren’t solely decorated with pictures, but with inscriptions as well. These inscriptions often contained incantations to aid the deceased through his journey to the afterlife, which was full of perils. A famous early example are the Pyramid texts.

Pyramid text from the pyramid of Unas. Image Credit Brooklyn Museum / Commons

Inscribed on the sarcophagi and inner walls of pyramids, these texts were without images, and in the Old Kingdom, reserved solely for Pharaoh (and for some queens). Primarily concerned with the transformation into an akh, one of the forms of the soul, they consisted of spells to aid the deceased.

Later the texts were also used by nobles, and other forms such as the Coffin texts and Book of the Dead became popular. These latter versions are notable as they were also available to commoners and supposedly removed access to the afterlife as a solely royal privilege.

This so-called “democratisation of the afterlife” model is sometimes disputed. As common in ancient history, we do not have enough evidence to definitively prove that in the Old Kingdom, the afterlife was a purely royal privilege. It is likely that non-elites believed in some form of afterlife that they could access. 

5. Rituals

The Opening of the Mouth ceremony being performed on a mummy before the tomb

Just as the texts contained magic spells for the deceased to use, so too were spells and rituals carried out by the living during the process of embalmment and burial. There were rituals for all stages between death and internment in the tomb.

As with all the above burial rites, the specifics varied over time and from place to place. Again there was an element of choice and ‘fashionability’.

The rituals often required specialised equipment, some of which would be buried with the deceased. They generally concerned the proper transformation of the soul, so that it may journey to the afterlife.

One particular example is the “Opening of the Mouth” ceremony. As the name suggests, this involved symbolically opening the mouth of the deceased to allow him to defend him/herself before the judgement of the gods.

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The Egyptians constructed a sophisticated and involved approach to death. Whilst the time and resources dedicated to the afterlife may be difficult for us to understand, it may be endemic of a society in which death was commonplace and medicine was ineffective.

It is perhaps fitting that the material remnants of this culture that have immortalised them in our imagination, were designed to grant them a life after death.