A brief guide to ancient Egyptian burial rites
Egyptologist Margaret Maitland gives an insight into the funeral customs of ancient Egypt
‘A central belief of the ancient Egyptians was the notion of dying to be reborn again. They had very sophisticated preparations for the afterlife, and often buried their relatives with belongings and valuables, so they’d have everything they needed in the spirit world. Some see their fascination with death to be a morbid obsession, when in fact they loved life, and wanted a continuation of it after death, in an idealised fashion.
The dead body was carefully preserved – mummified – then placed in a coffin. One of the oldest coffins in our collection – my personal favourite – is the coffin of Khnumhotep, an estate overseer. It’s one of the earliest examples of the ‘anthropoid’, mummy shape. The lid shows a man with a black-painted wig, gilded face, beard and stone eyes. The gold paint is for more than just aesthetic reasons; they believed the skin of the gods was gold, so it helped transform the dead into spirits.
A lot of customs centred about the sun god – Ra. They observed the sun setting and rising, or being ‘reborn’ every morning, and believed men could do the same. Many funerary spells, iconography and imagery refers to Ra or Osiris, the king of the afterlife, so look out for details of crowns, crooks and flails.
Like modern funerals, burials were a mixture of mourning and celebration – a bit like people requesting happy songs being played at funerals nowadays. People tore their hair and clothes, and threw dust on themselves to express their grief. Dances were thought to help the transition to the afterlife, and "the opening of the mouth" ceremony ensured they could still receive offerings of food and drink in the spirit world.’
National Museums Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh, see nms.ac.uk for more info on ancient Egyptian coffins, Ghanaian Mercedes-shaped coffins, miniature Arthur's Seat coffins and more. Read Margaret’s Egyptology blog at eloquentpeasant.com