Preparation for death in ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptians spent a considerable amount of time and money preparing for their death. They purchased funerary items, commissioned or bought a coffin and built a tomb that was often more elaborate than their lifetime home.

Ancient Egyptian scarab amulet with wings

 © Australian Museum

Why prepare for death?

The ancient Egyptians believed that when they died their spiritual body would continue to exist in an afterlife very similar to their living world. However, entry into this afterlife was not guaranteed. The dead had to negotiate a dangerous underworld journey and face the final judgment before they were granted access. If successful, they were required to provide eternal sustenance for their spirit. These things could be achieved if proper preparations were made during a person’s lifetime.

Preparations

A variety of different preparations were required. These included:

1. Purchase of small funerary items

Funerary items for placement in the tomb were purchased from specialist shops or temples though wealthier people would commission items such as furniture, expensive coffins and jewellery.
Items could be divided into two classes: 

  • those for protection and guidance on the underworld journey and in the afterlife, such as amulets, stelae and the Book of the Dead (or other funerary texts);
  • those for the provision of essential nourishment, leisure and comfort for their eternal spirit, such as food, clothing and shabtis (small funerary statuettes).
Shabtis: workers for the afterlife

The dead were granted a plot of land in the afterlife and were expected to maintain it, either by performing the labour themselves or getting their shabtis to work for them. Shabtis were small funerary statuettes inscribed with a spell that miraculously brought them to life, enabling the dead person to relax while the shabtis performed their physical duties.

Shabtis have a long history as funerary items for tombs. They first appear in the Middle Kingdom about 2100 BCE, replacing the servant statuettes that were common in tombs of the Old Kingdom. Individually sculpted, they were designed to represent the owner and only one or two were placed in a tomb. By about 1000 BCE shabtis became simplified in form, with the wealthy now having one for every day of the year and overseer shabtis to manage them. This was due mostly to an ideological shift – they now represented servants rather than the dead person. The last shabtis were used in the late Ptolemaic Period, as attitudes to death and the afterlife had changed.

Amulets: the magic of charms

Many cultures and individuals, including some today, have placed great faith in symbolic jewellery like amulets or charms. However, ancient Egyptians elevated the influence of these to a greater level. They believed that amulets endowed the wearer with magical powers of protection and healing and also brought good fortune. From an early age, they would wear a variety of these charms around the neck, wrists, fingers and ankles. Most were symbols related to a god or goddess so placed the wearer under their specific protection.

Protection and healing, especially in the context of resurrection, were especially important in the afterlife so amulets were placed on various parts of the body during the wrapping process. Although there were hundreds of amulets that were available for use, the final selection would depend on the person’s wealth and individual choice. Many amulets were required to be placed in set positions on the mummy, usually relating to a certain part of the body or a position inside or outside the wrappings. Others had more flexibility in their placement. Priests performed rites and said prayers as these amulets were placed.

Heartscarabs

The heartscarab was the most widely used amulet. It was placed over the dead person’s heart to protect it from being separated from the body in the underworld. The heart, which contained a record of all the person’s actions in life, was essential for the ‘Weighing of the Heart Ceremony’ as it was weighed against the feather of the goddess Ma’at. If the scales were balanced, the person passed and entered the afterlife. For those who were concerned about this test, they could recite the spell inscribed on their heartscarab to prevent their heart from ‘betraying’ them.

2. Commissioning or buying a coffin

Coffins were probably the single most important piece of funerary equipment. To ancient Egyptians they were ‘chests of life’ with every aspect designed to protect the physical body in this world and also the spiritual body in the afterlife. To achieve this, almost every surface was covered with prayers and spells from funerary texts, important religious symbols, and scenes of various gods and goddesses associated with death, protection and the underworld. Although texts and imagery, and even shape (early coffins were rectangular in shape, the mummy-shaped coffins appeared in the Middle Kingdom, about 1900 BCE), changed over time as religious beliefs evolved, the general purpose remained the same.

Coffin-making was an important and often expensive industry. Craftsmen would construct coffins of wood, or stone for royals, and then scribes and painters decorated them. The religious nature of the images and texts meant that these artists were usually associated with temple library workshops. In earlier periods, only the very wealthy could afford to commission a coffin from a workshop. However, in later periods they were more affordable as ‘mass production’ became common. Cheaper coffins could be bought from the marketplace and were designed with spaces for personal touches such as a name or title.

3. Building the tombs

Many years could be spent on building and preparing tombs, which were known to the ancient Egyptians as ‘houses of eternity’. They were usually built on the western bank of the Nile, in the land of the dead, and made from non-perishable material such as stone. This is in contrast to the mudbrick and straw houses that they occupied during their lifetime.However, they weren’t just houses for the spirit and body. The tomb itself, if built and designed properly, had the power of restoring life and giving immortality to the dead owner.

Preparing tombs correctly was a common theme in Egyptian texts. Master builders and supervisors were instructed to perform rituals during construction and guidelines were provided on where to build, how to design, and also what materials to use.


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Tags funerary items, coffin, tomb, ancient egypt, death, burial,