ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egyptian funerary practices - Preparations, processions and burial
Preparing the tomb
Preparing the corpse
History of preservation
The burial

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[Images: Clay coffin, Clay pots used for burying  babies]
Left: Clay coffin, Saqqara
Right: Pots used for burying babies.
Source: M.A.Murray, Saqqara Mastabas, Part I

Funerary practices: Preparations, processions and burial

I buried my father the count, Zau, beyond splendor, beyond the goodliness of any [equal (?)] of his in the South. I requested as an honor from the majesty of my lord, the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Neferkare (Pepi II), who lives forever, that there be taken a coffin, clothing, and festival perfume for this Zau. His majesty caused that the custodian of the royal domain should bring a coffin of wood, festival perfume, (sfT)-oil, clothing, 200 (pieces) of prime (HAtjw-) linen, and of fine southern linen of [///], taken from the double White House of the court for this Zau. Never had it been done to another of his rank.
Inscription of Djau [18]

Preparing the tomb

    Excavating a shallow grave in sandy soil and getting a few rocks ready to cover the ground after the burial to protect the corpse from scavenging jackals was a matter of a few hours, performed close to the burial itself. Such tombs satisfied the needs of the vast majority of Egyptians throughout history.
    Those who could afford it, may have preferred a more substantial tomb, built underground of mudbrick or even of stone. These were typically simple structures containing one or two small rooms, sometimes with a staircase for easy access. People aspiring to a genteel after-life-style beyond their means, bought at times themselves space in a neighbour's tomb:
List of valuables given to the owner of this tomb by Sebekhotep for burying his father in it:
Small barley
[7]: 2 sacks (?); emmer: 3 sacks (?); tigernuts;[8] 1 sack (?); setep-cloth: 50 square cubits; axe: 1; wab-garment: 1
(Things) which Wamet has given to his father which he will give to whomever he wants to:
Small barley: 4 sacks (?);
des-vessels: 2
Pottery vessel, 2nd half of the 11th dynasty, found at Qubbet el Hawa [19]
    But already in predynastic times such unimpressive graves did not satisfy the elite. The tomb itself became deeper, the superstructure more massive, culminating in the pyramids of the 4th dynasty. After the excesses of Khufu and his successors better judgment prevailed, and the tombs of subsequent kings and their families were more reasonably sized. Still, they required years of planning and execution at great expense.
    After the Middle Kingdom the royals abandoned pyramids, opting instead for burials in graves cut into the living rock of the Upper Egyptian mountains. These tombs were at times similar to huge warrens with many passage ways and rooms, capable of accommodating large numbers of deceased family members. If the reason for hiding the burial places under mountains was to afford better protection from tomb robbers, then they were a sad disappointment: almost all the graves were broken into and robbed, sometimes only decades after they had been excavated.[9]
    Those who could afford it generally preferred to get their own tomb ready in time. The more substantial abodes of eternity could take years to build. The Old Kingdom companion of the house, the keeper of secrets, Mehi, wrote:[17]
I made this tomb actually while I was alive and on my feet, as the favored one of the king and beloved one of men; I paid the masons so that they were satisfied with it...

Preparing the corpse

    See also the article on Mummification

    A somewhat morbid fascination exists concerning the mummified deceased of ancient Egypt; and few other aspects of this great culture have attracted as much attention. A common misconception should therefore be put right at the outset: even though the number of surviving mummies is large, the vast majority of ancient Egyptians were not mummified. This treatment was reserved for the small upper classes, and it was abandoned as pagan practice when Egypt became Christianized.

Reconstruction of pre-dynastic burial Reconstruction of pre-dynastic grave, with naturally desiccated corpse and grave gifts
Source: U. of Pennsylvania

    Generally speaking, a body was probably treated then as it would be today: it was cleaned and wrapped in clothes or a shroud and laid to rest in a grave where it decayed and left few traces. If the graveyard was in a dry area not inundated by the Nile corpses might undergo natural mummification by desiccation. In Upper Egypt, where the floodplain was at times quite narrow, many people, even the poor, buried their dead in the near-by desert. In the Delta it was mostly only the elite who could afford transporting a corpse to one of the great graveyards in the western desert for burial.

History of preservation

    Preservation of the corpse was linked to the Osiris cult. This, like other national cults, seems to have affected the populace, which put its reliance on intimately known local deities, but little and remained a religion of the elitist upper classes. According to the myth the god's body had been dismembered, but Isis had reassembled all the body parts and Osiris had been revived. Rituals of burial and passage into the afterlife were based on this resurrection myth, which until the 6th dynasty were applied to pharaohs only, then increasingly to his family, the aristocracy and from the Middle Kingdom on to any who could afford them. By Greek and Roman times it was more widespread than ever, even if it may have been more of a status symbol than part of deeply held religious beliefs, and the quality of mummification had deteriorated.
    During pre-dynastic times little importance seems to have been attached to the continued existence of the corpse, though a few skeletons have been found whose bones were treated with resin, seemingly attempts at preserving them.

Wrapped viscera, which turned out to be plant matter Packages which looked as if they contained viscera, but were only plant matter wrapped in linen and buried with the body.
4th dynasty
At times it is difficult to know what could be treated symbolically and what had to be the real McCoy.
Source: Petrie Museum website [3], UC30896

    The Old Kingdom saw a rise in the importance of preserving the shape of the deceased and with the increased complexities of preparing the corpses the profession of embalmer came into being. Bodies were wrapped in linen, sometimes soaked with natron, sometimes treated with resin which enabled the modelling of the form of the body. Facial features were sometimes added by modelling and painting. This kind of mummy is referred to as linen mummy. If the linen wrapping was covered with plaster one speaks of stucco or plaster mummies. At times the preservation of the whole body was abandoned in favour of preserving just the bones, which, after defleshing, were covered in resin and wrapped in linen.
[Image: Canopic jar, Source: Petrie Museum website]     From the 4th dynasty onward the viscera of the royals were sometimes removed, wrapped separately, and occasionally buried in canopic jars. Receptacles for viscera found in the tombs of noblemen were always empty and do not prove that their organs were removed.

Canopic jar, Ø 22 cm
6th dynasty
Source: Petrie Museum website [3], UC16411

    In the tomb of Hetepheres, Khufu's mother, at Giza internal body parts were found, which had been dehydrated with natron and wrapped in linen
    In the Middle Kingdom the burial practices, which had been applied to royals and their entourage in the past, became more widespread. Well-to-do women and officials had their bodies covered in resin and wrapped in linen. Some corpses were covered in pitch.
Decay falls on thee, old age has reached thee; it is no small thing that thy body should be embalmed, that the Pedtiu shall not bury thee.
[Image: Funerary masks]     If the viscera were removed, it was generally done through a natural orifice, and the heart was at times left in place. Face masks [6] were often made of cartonnage (consisting of linen and plaster) and painted. Royal funerary masks were made of gold, inlaid with precious stones. These masks were not intended to be faithful representations. Rather, they gave the mummy sense organs, eyes to see with, ears to hear with and a mouth to utter the necessary protective spells, and the Opening of the Mouth ceremony enabled the deceased to use them.

Cartonnage masks
From top to bottom:
11th dynasty
Middle Kingdom
18th dynasty
Source: Petrie Museum website [3]

    The art of embalming reached a peak during the New Kingdom. Thanks to the removal of the brain, the viscera, the complete dehydration of the body, and burials in dry places, these mummies are often in better condition than those of later periods, when even those who could not really afford it tried to have their corpses preserved.
    During the Third Intermediate Period mummification began to resemble taxidermy. The intention was to preserve the body as lifelike as possible by stuffing it with sawdust and other materials. Even legs and arms were at times enhanced by inserting little packages filled with vegetable matter under the skin. The organs were frequently left in place or replaced after embalming.
    The Late Period saw a revival of ancient traditions in many fields, mummification among them. Embalmers were trying to preserve corpses in New Kingdom fashion, e.g. canopic jars were again used for the viscera. Herodotus, who visited Egypt in the fifth century BCE, reported that there were three different embalming treatments and that the cheapest of them was affordable to most, or as he puts it those who have less means. These probably did not include the poor peasants whom he did not even acknowledge in his list of Egyptian social classes.
    Still, it seems that in the second half of the first millennium BCE and the first centuries CE a greater proportion of Egyptians, native traditional or Hellenized, were embalmed than ever before, and people went to great lengths to give the deceased a burial following the old customs [4]. In Ptolemaic and Roman times, when it happened not infrequently that people died far from their loved ones, were mummified and then shipped home, they often affixed tablets, so called mummy labels, to the deceased bearing his name and other information concerning him for identification. For those who could not afford an expensive mortuary stela, such a tablet, sometimes also inscribed with a mortuary prayer, may have fulfilled that role.[13] [12] In Roman times canopic jars were apparently rarely used and the organs replaced inside the body after mummification.
    It was only the spread of Christianity which put an end to this post-mortem social climbing which was, partially at least, the result of an ever growing urbanization.


    An important part of the funerary rites were the processions. The first one brought the deceased, who could afford it, to the necropolis, which in many cases meant crossing the Nile and arriving in the West, the land of the dead. According to tomb depictions the corpse was placed in a chest or sarcophagus on a papyrus boat and accompanied by two female mourners sitting in the boat's bow. On landing the boat was fastened to the mooring stakes and and the deceased's ka could feast on the royal offering, the Htp nswt and offerings of the gods:
An offering which the king gives, an offering which Anubis presiding over the divine booth gives
Mastaba of Ni-ankh-khnum and Khnum-Hotep at Saqqara, Old Kingdom.[14]
The deceased was identified with Osiris and treated the way the god, according to the myth, had been. The mourners in the boat, referred to as the two kites, the, represented the sisters of Osiris, Isis and Nephthys. The bull slaughtered at the mooring must have symbolized Seth, the murderer of Osiris. Present at these sacrifices were among others a sem-priest in the guise of Horus and a lector priest representing Thoth.
    From the mooring place the deceased was carried by nine pall bearers, four of them representing the Sons of Horus, to the divine booth, the zH-nTr. They prayed for him, that he would pass the Judgment successfully. At the end of the procession followed bearers of grave goods and offerings.
    After the embalmment the deceased was taken to his tomb in a funerary cortège. The mummy was placed on a sledge drawn by cattle and dragged to the tomb, led by priests and accompanied by relatives and friends. This short journey, at the end of which he would be received by the goddess of the Western desert with the words: I embrace you with my arms, that I lead life to you, that I indeed be the protection of your body,[15] was the first stage on the long journey through the Underworld which, as it was hoped, would culminate in the deceased joining the immortal stars.

The burial

[Image: Contracted burial, Bet Khallaf]     The vast majority of ancient Egyptians was buried in simple, at times quite shallow pits with few or no funerary offerings. They were laid to rest lying on their left side, in a contracted position facing west, though this was not a hard and fast rule.

Contracted burial, late Old Kingdom
Source: J.Garstang, Mahasna and Bet Khallaf

    In general, today only their skeletons remain if at all, though at times the corpses underwent mummification naturally when they were buried in hot desert sand and were desiccated before decomposition set in.
    These nameless remains often speak of a life that was short and full of hardship, of toil which enlarged the bones of the limbs and ground down the joints bearing the loads, of tooth decay which caused lethal abscesses, of accidents in which bones were broken or crushed, and of periods of malnutrition which stunted growth.
    We can only guess at the ceremonies with which they were laid to rest. They may have expressed a kind of ancestor worship, similar to the one we still practice in the West today, with prayers spoken over the grave to ensure that the deceased would not return to haunt the living, with little offerings of flowers and libations, and with ever decreasing visits to the grave, as the survivors accept their loss.
    The ceremonies of the rich were more elaborate and ostentatious. The power of speech was returned to the mummified body in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. The deceased was transported to his resting place in a funerary cortège in which priests, family members and dependants took place. Professional mourners were hired who accompanied the proceedings with wailing. In the name of the king, the intermediary between this world and the next, offerings were made and future offerings promised. This was the hour of the eldest son who stepped forward to perform his duties of heir and successor, satisfying all the needs, spiritual and corporal, of his father in the hereafter.
    There was a sinister aspect to this life after death: the deceased, if dissatisfied, might return to haunt the living, who were therefore well advised to fulfill the obligations they had towards the dead, and also to take precautions.

[Image: Corpse wrapped in two layers of matting, New Kingdom] Corpse wrapped in two layers of matting
Top: grass matting, bottom: ribs of date palm matting
New Kingdom
By this time the rich were buried in highly decorated coffins in sumptuous tombs.
Source: M.A.Murray, Saqqara Mastabas, Part I

    In prehistoric times simple burials were practically universal. But as time passed and parts of the Egyptian society became more affluent, the number of more elaborate interments increased. Jewellery, palettes, and vessels containing victuals were buried together with the dead. Some of these goods seem to have been made especially for the purpose.
    By the late 4th millennium the differences between the impoverished populace and the rich elite were significant. The better-off dead were wrapped in mats made of grass or reeds, or buried in baskets, coffins or - since the third dynasty - occasionally in stone sarcophagi, and the burial goods included items only they could afford, by which they asserted their elevated social status for all eternity.
    During the first Old Kingdom dynasties burial in clay coffins interred in pits gave way to simple tomb constructions which at first were little more than four walls made of mud bricks, but later became more substantial, combining a funerary chapel with a subterranean tomb. The elite built tombs with great superstructures which are called by their Arabic name mastabas, and which were furnished and decorated lavishly. From the fourth dynasty onwards, in the case of the pharaohs and some of their close relatives, these edifices grew into vast temples of which the pyramids were just one, albeit the most impressive, part of the complex.

[Image: Old Kingdom tombs at Ballas]- Plans of Old Kingdom tombs at Ballas
Contracted: 2, 3, 6, 9
Partially contracted: 8
Extended lying on one side: 1
Extended lying on back: 5
Source: J.E.Quibell, Ballas

    Since the Old Kingdom the tomb was the home of the deceased, his House in the West, which sheltered the various parts making up a human being: the decaying body (generally facing east during the dynasties IV to VI) and its eternal twin, the ka, its shadow, and the ba, which in its avian form could leave the tomb and communicate with other beings.
    At least those who left us written evidence, which in the third millennium were the rich and powerful, seem to have believed that it was possible to enjoy for eternity an existence in the beyond similar to the one they had relished in this world. Offerings of victuals, real and with the passing of time more and more virtual, fed the ka, which could enter the mortuary chapel through a false door. Paintings on the tomb walls recreated the world they had left, and statues and inscriptions of their names and doings perpetuated their being.

[Image: Coffin of Gua, MK] Wooden coffin of Gua, painted with a map of the netherworld
Middle Kingdom
Source: Jon Bodsworth

    Towards the end of the Old Kingdom the wooden coffins were mostly long narrow boxes. The deceased were placed in them with their bodies straightened, but lying on their left side often facing east. Protecting the tomb and its contents was of some concern. While the presence of living people nearby helped to restrict grave robbery, the gods were also relied upon to mete out justice to an offender in the hereafter.
The scribe in the presence, Itji, speaks:
With regard to any person who shall takes stones from this tomb of mine of the necropolis, I shall be judged with them on this matter by the god. For I am an excellent
akh who knows his spells.
Inscription in the tomb of Ankhwedja Itji at Giza [16]
But as time passed the tombs were considered less and less safe, and people were afraid that even the magical supply of offerings painted or carved into the walls of the tomb, would not be ensured. They began to paint the coffins with images of the necessary supplies and religious texts, a development which culminated in coffins completely covered with depictions in the Middle Kingdom.
    By this time corpses were very often laid out on their backs in an extended posture, and their torsos and heads were covered with cartonnage masks. The head was supported by a headrest. Small statues of the deceased and models of craftsmen plying their trade and servants doing chores were placed near the coffin. The coffins themselves were often given anthropomorphic forms.
    If in early times only the king had to be equipped for an afterlife as Osiris, now the upper classes began to aspire to becoming one with the Foremost of the Westerners. The acceptance of a continued existence had been naive, and little more had been required of the deceased than to partake of the food offered to him. The identification with Osiris required greater efforts. The prize was no longer living in the shadow of one's king, but to become "divine" in one's own right, the risks of failure were accordingly greater, and knowledge was needed to survive the many pitfalls which awaited one in the underworld. This knowledge was magical. Some of the magic used was just for personal ease: shabtis began to appear in the tombs serving the deceased when called upon by the right formulae, but most was of critical importance: magical wands, drawings of maps of the netherworld and - from the New Kingdom on - heart scarabs, pectorals, amulets and the so-called Book of the Dead [1] helped to ward off dangers and navigate through the underworld.
    New Kingdom burials did not come cheap. A linen shroud would set you back 50 deben of copper, which were 5 kit of silver, a simple wooden coffin 20 to 40 deben, while a scribe's coffin could cost 200 deben and a Book of the Dead 100 deben. Other items could be had more cheaply: four simple canopic jars for 5 deben and a simple ushabti, of which you needed a little army, 0.02 deben a piece.
List of objects ... which he gave to the Lady Tagemy, his mother:
1 burial-place after he had given her coffin to ..., makes 40 deben.
Again: what he gave to her: 1 coffin for her burial, while he had (also) made the burial-place for Huy-nofre, his father.
From J. J. Janssen and P. W. Pestman, Burial and Inheritance in the Community of the Necropolis Workmen at Thebes (Pap. Bulaq X and O. Petrie 16), JESHO 11 (1968) 137-70

    The tomb robberies which occurred during the late New Kingdom due to a deterioration of the social and economic situation brought about a change in the burial practices of the elite. The building of ostentatious tombs furnished with expensive coffins and accessories gave way to secret mass burials of dignitaries and re-burials of pharaohs in inaccessible caves or in tombs which were more easily protected [2].
[Image: Cartonnage mask of Tuyu]

Cartonnage mask of Tuyu, 18th dynasty
Source: Jon Bodsworth

    From the 22nd dynasty on the religious texts and drawings, formerly painted on the tomb walls, were transferred in abbreviated form onto the coffins and cartonnage masks, similar to the practice during earlier periods of upheaval. Even the canopic jars, papyri and shabtis were largely dispensed with. The less well-off, too, preferred cheaper burials with funerary gifts consisting of scarabs and other small items.
    The Late Period saw a resurgence of New Kingdom customs which the indigenous population adhered to until the abandonment of the ancient Egyptian religion in favour of Christianity in the Byzantine Period [5].
    Under the Ptolemies some of the wealthier inhabitants of the Faiyum joined religious associations at considerable expense. One of the purposes of these fraternities was to ensure a proper burial:[10]
The man among us who dies outside the village, we will equip ten men from the association and they will recover him.
P. Cair. II 30605
Andrew Monson, 2005, p.9
The man among us who dies during the aforesaid period, we will mourn for him and give five deben [= 100 drachmas] per person for his burial and will raise ten rations of grief [for his household] and will invite his son, father, or father-in-law to drink with us in order to soothe his heart.
P. Prague
Andrew Monson, 2005, p.9


[2] One such cache in the Kings' Valley tomb KV35 included Thutmose IV, Amenhotep III, Seti II, Merneptah, Siptah, Ramses IV, V and VI and an unidentified female.
[4] Some time during the second or third century CE Senpamonthes sent a letter to her brother announcing the arrival of their mother's mummy
Senpamonthes greets her brother Pamonthes.
I have sent to you the mummified body of my mother Senepis, with a tablet hanging around her neck, by the intermediary Gales, son of Hierax, on his boat, and I have paid the freight costs. The sign by which to recognize the mummy is a coffin with a piece of rose colour, the name is written on the belly.
I pray that you may be well, brother.
In the year 3, the 11th of Toth (8th September).
To Pamonthes Moros from the part of his sister Senpamonthes.
Papyrus Louvre N 2341
[7] Small barley: Upper Egyptian barley
[8] tigernut (waH): Chufa, the edible tuber of a sedge tasting like almonds.
[9] cf. the records of investigations into tomb robberies held under Ramses IX The Abbott Papyrus, The Amherst Papyrus, The Mayer Papyri
[10] The statutes of a Ptolemaic religious association
[13] Ian Shaw, Paul Nicholson, The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, British Museum Press 1995, p.192
[14] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae web site: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Grabinschriften => Sakkara => Unas-Friedhof => Mastaba des Nianch-Chnum und Chnum-hotep => Opferhalle => Westwan => Szene 42
[15] Hays, Harold M., 2010, "Funerary Rituals (Pharaonic Period)". In Jacco Dieleman, Willeke Wendrich (eds.), UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles.
[16] Strudwick & Leprohon, 2005, p.218
[17] Strudwick & Leprohon, 2005, p.224
[18] J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, § 382
[19] After a transcription and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: S. Seidlmayer ed., Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => hieratische Urkunden und Vermerke => Varia => Qubbet el-Hawa => Grab 30b => Schale 30b/16

- Index of topicsMummification - the embalmers and their art
Funerary objectsFunerary objects
Mourning and burialMourning and burial
Index of topicsIndex of topics
Main indexMain index
Offsite links   (Opening in a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the content of these sites
The Papyrus of Ani[1] The Papyrus of Ani by E.A.Wallis Budge
The Petrie Museum[3] The Petrie Museum
Burial customs[5] Egypt: The End of a Civilisation by Dr Aidan Dodson
Burial customs[6] Ancient Egyptian Coffin Face by Elaine A. Evans
Mummy labels (limestone): a gallery[12] Mummy labels (limestone): a gallery
Mummies and MummificationMummies and Mummification
Burial customsBurial customs


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