Ancient Egypt's Cult of the Dead: Burials & the Afterlife

Instructor: Cirrelia Thaxton

Cirrelia is an educator who has taught K-12 and has a doctorate in education.

Ancient Egyptians believed in preserving the body after death for the purposes of a happy afterlife. In this lesson, learn about the funeral practices and rituals of Ancient Egypt, including mummification.

Preservation of the Dead: A History

According to lore, Osiris, an Egyptian god, was dismembered. Isis, his wife, saw to it that his body parts were rejoined, and he was revived. The Egyptians believed this myth about resurrection and copied the ritual of preserving the body. From the Sixth Dynasty until the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, only the bodies of aristocrats, such as the Pharaohs, were carefully preserved.

During later periods, ordinary Egyptians also turned to preservation of their dead, if they could afford it. The rituals associated with preservation practices became symbolic representations of Egyptian culture and influenced the future of burial preparations around the world.

Osiris - God of the Underworld

Lower and Middle Class Burials

Poor Egyptians could not afford extravagant burials. The process of embalming involved the washing of the intestines, followed by the placing of the body in natron, a divine salt, for seventy days. Next, the internal organs or viscera were removed, wrapped in linen, and placed in canopic jars. The heart was the only organ left inside the body because it was thought to contain the cadaver's soul. It was believed that even the poorest individual should have a burial to protect the living from a ghost rising from the soul. Next, the body, lying on its left side in a fetal position facing west, was placed in a shallow pit. The family members recited prayers, placed flowers, and visited these humble graves to mourn their loss.

Middle class Egyptians endured another type of embalming that also used natron. A professional embalmer injected oil of cedar into the body's anus, where it was physically contained for a specified time period. Then, natron was applied to the body for curing until the cedar oil drained away. As a result of this powerful process, the viscera dissolved completely, and the embalmer returned the flesh and bones of the preserved body to the family. The bodies of the well-to-do Egyptians were often wrapped in grass or reed mats, and they were buried in coffins or baskets. Elaborate burial goods, such as jewelry, were placed inside these coffins.

Burying the Elite

The process of mummification, which involved drying out a dead body and preparing it for preservation, was always used for the burials of elite Egyptians, such as queens and kings. Natron, having desiccating and defatting characteristics, was the essential ingredient in mummification.

The first step in mummifying the deceased elite was brain removal, which involved using an iron hook to remove this organ through the nose. Then, with a knife, the embalmer cut open the abdomen and removed the viscera. Carefully, the embalmer washed out the abdominal cavity with wine and spices and filled it with myrrh, cassia, and other aromatic substances. Finally, the embalmer sewed up the cavity, placed the body in natron and waited for seventy days before washing the body and wrapping it in linen smeared with gum. The family then received the mummy, which was placed in a wooden coffin with the shape of a human form.

A Mastaba

For most purposes, the Egyptian coffin was called a sarcophagus, and its construction was based on both symbolic and practical terms for corpse protection. Early tombs were made of mud and brick and were called mastabas. The term mastaba is based on the Arabic word for 'bench.'

Corpses laid inside the rectangular mastabas often rotted away in the cool moisture of their interiors, creating a problem for visiting family members. For this reason, Egyptians came up with the idea of building larger structures known as step pyramids, which eventually became true pyramids. Inside the pyramids, along with the mummies of their loved ones, the Egyptians packed goods to help the deceased enjoy a happy afterlife. The amount of goods provided was a reminder of the wealth of the deceased during their lifetime.

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