Preparation for death in ancient Egypt

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Egyptian Mummies

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.


The methods of embalming, or treating the dead body, that the ancient Egyptians used is called mummification. Using special processes, the Egyptians removed all moisture from the body, leaving only a dried form that would not easily decay. It was important in their religion to preserve the dead body in as life-like a manner as possible. So successful were they that today we can view the mummified body of an Egyptian and have a good idea of what he or she looked like in life, 3000 years ago.

Mummification was practiced throughout most of early Egyptian history. The earliest mummies from prehistoric times probably were accidental. By chance, dry sand and air (since Egypt has almost no measurable rainfall) preserved some bodies buried in shallow pits dug into the sand. About 2600 B.C., during the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties, Egyptians probably began to mummify the dead intentionally. The practice continued and developed for well over 2,000 years, into the Roman Period (ca. 30 B.C. - A.D. 364). Within any one period the quality of the mummification varied, depending on the price paid for it. The best prepared and preserved mummies are from the Eighteenth through the Twentieth Dynasties of the New Kingdom (ca. 1570 - 1075 B.C.) and include those of Tutankhamen and other well-known pharaohs. It is the general process of this period that shall be described here.


The mummification process took seventy days. Special priests worked as embalmers, treating and wrapping the body. Beyond knowing the correct rituals and prayers to be performed at various stages, the priests also needed a detailed knowledge of human anatomy. The first step in the process was the removal of all internal parts that might decay rapidly. The brain was removed by carefully inserting special hooked instruments up through the nostrils in order to pull out bits of brain tissue. It was a delicate operation, one which could easily disfigure the face. The embalmers then removed the organs of the abdomen and chest through a cut usually made on the left side of the abdomen. They left only the heart in place, believing it to be the center of a person's being and intelligence. The other organs were preserved separately, with the stomach, liver, lungs, and intestines placed in special boxes or jars today called canopic jars. These were buried with the mummy. In later mummies, the organs were treated, wrapped, and replaced within the body. Even so, unused canopic jars continued to be part of the burial ritual.

The embalmers next removed all moisture from the body. This they did by covering the body with natron, a type of salt which has great drying properties, and by placing additional natron packets inside the body. When the body had dried out completely, embalmers removed the internal packets and lightly washed the natron off the body. The result was a very dried-out but recognizable human form. To make the mummy seem even more life-like, sunken areas of the body were filled out with linen and other materials and false eyes were added.

Next the wrapping began. Each mummy needed hundreds of yards of linen. The priests carefully wound the long strips of linen around the body, sometimes even wrapping each finger and toe separately before wrapping the entire hand or foot. In order to protect the dead from mishap, amulets were placed among the wrappings and prayers and magical words written on some of the linen strips. Often the priests placed a mask of the person's face between the layers of head bandages. At several stages the form was coated with warm resin and the wrapping resumed once again. At last the priests wrapped the final cloth or shroud in place and secured it with linen strips. The mummy was complete.

The priests preparing the mummy were not the only ones busy during this time. Although the tomb preparation usually had begun long before the person's actual death, now there was a deadline, and craftsmen, workers, and artists worked quickly. There was much to be placed in the tomb that a person would need in the Afterlife. Furniture and statuettes were readied; wall paintings of religious or daily scenes were prepared; and lists of food or prayers finished. Through a magical process, these models, pictures, and lists would become the real thing when needed in the Afterlife. Everything was now ready for the funeral.

As part of the funeral, priests performed special religious rites at the tomb's entrance. The most important part of the ceremony was called the "Opening of the Mouth". A priest touched various parts of the mummy with a special instrument to "open" those parts of the body to the senses enjoyed in life and needed in the Afterlife. By touching the instrument to the mouth, the dead person could now speak and eat. He was now ready for his journey to the Afterlife. The mummy was placed in his coffin, or coffins, in the burial chamber and the entrance sealed up.

Such elaborate burial practices might suggest that the Egyptians were preoccupied with thoughts of death. On the contrary, they began early to make plans for their death because of their great love of life. They could think of no life better than the present, and they wanted to be sure it would continue after death.

But why preserve the body? The Egyptians believed that the mummified body was the home for this soul or spirit. If the body was destroyed, the spirit might be lost. The idea of "spirit" was complex involving really three spirits:  the ka, ba, and akh. The ka, a "double" of the person, would remain in the tomb and needed the offerings and objects there. The ba, or "soul", was free to fly out of the tomb and return to it. And it was the akh, perhaps translated as "spirit", which had to travel through the Underworld to the Final Judgment and entrance to the Afterlife. To the Egyptian, all three were essential.

Who Was Mummified

After death, the pharaohs of Egypt usually were mummified and buried in elaborate tombs. Members of the nobility and officials also often received the same treatment, and occasionally, common people. However, the process was an expensive one, beyond the means of many.

For religious reasons, some animals were also mummified. The sacred bulls from the early dynasties had their own cemetery at Sakkara. Baboons, cats, birds, and crocodiles, which also had great religious significance, were sometimes mummified, especially in the later dynasties.

The Study of Mummies Today

Ancient writers, modern scientists, and the mummies themselves all help us better understand the Egyptian mummification process and the culture in which it existed. Much of what we know about the actual process is based on the writings of early historians such as Herodotus who carefully recorded the process during his travels to Egypt around 450 B.C. Present-day archaeologists and other specialists are adding to this knowledge. The development of x-rays now makes it possible to x-ray mummies without destroying the elaborate outer wrappings. By studying the x-rays or performing autopsies on unwrapped bodies, experts are learning more about diseases suffered by the Egyptians and their medical treatment. A better idea of average height and life span comes from studying the bones. By learning their age at death, the order and dates of the Egyptian kings becomes a little clearer. Even ties of kinship in the royal line can be suggested by the striking similarities or dissimilarities in the skulls of pharaohs that followed one another. Dead now for thousands of years, the mummy continues to speak to us.

 © 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.


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 specialty shops or temples, though wealthier people would commission items such as furniture, expensive coffins and jewelry.

Items could be divided into two classes: 

  • those for protection and guidance on the underworld journey and in the afterlife, such as amulets, stelae (a stone or slab with an inscribed or sculpted surface) 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 labor 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 jewelry 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.

Heart scarabs

The heart scarab 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 heart scarab 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 mud brick 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.


"Encyclopedia Smithsonian: Egyptian Mummies." Encyclopedia Smithsonian: Egyptian Mummies. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Jan. 2014. .

"Preparation for Death in Ancient Egypt - Australian Museum." Preparation for Death in Ancient Egypt - Australian Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Jan. 2014. .

Egyptian Mummies Questions (In your journals)

    1. What was the Egyptian process of embalming and treating a dead body called?

    2. How do historians believe this process began? Explain.

    3. During what period in history was the mummification process best preserved?

    4. How long did it take to mummify a dead body?

    5. What was the first step in the mummification process? Explain.

    6. Define canopic jars:

    7. Define natron and explain its use.

    8. What occurred during the wrapping of the body with linens?

    9. Identify and explain items that were placed in the tomb with the mummy.

    10. What is the “Opening of the Mouth” ceremony?

    11. Why did Egyptians mummify bodies?

    12. Identify and explain the 3 spirits residing in each person, according to ancient Egyptians.

    13. Who and what were mummified?

    14. What do mummies reveal to scientists and historians today?

    15. What are Shabtis and what is their function?

    16. What is the significance of the “heart scarab”?

    17. What was the purpose of coffins in ancient Egypt? How was this achieved?

    18. Why were tombs important?

Extended Activity: To be completed on a separate sheet of paper. Turn in your final copy to the black tray.

First:, what are your most prized possessions? Why are they your treasures? What are your most loved foods, music, etc? If you could keep “things” forever, what would they be? List at least twelve, and explain why they’re significant to your life—use 2 paragraphs.

Second, how would you keep tomb raiders, archeologists, and other “explorers” from discovering your treasures? Design a maze, a pyramid, or a monument to house your PRECIOUS artifacts. You’ll need magic spells, guardians, maybe some monsters.

Have fun, but expend mental energy. These will be graded on neatness, creativity, and effort. I want to fully understand why your possessions are vital to your happiness and enjoyed in both this life and the next!

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