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Ancient Egyptian funerary practice


From a practical perspective, ancient Egyptian coffins protected the corpse. This innately had a religious dimension, as the ba dimension of the soul was thought to come and go from the corpse, departing during daylight and returning at twilight. Without a corpse to return to, the survival of the ba was jeopardized. From a religious perspective, ancient Egyptian coffins represented a cosmos wherein the deceased was transfigured as Osiris and Ra. This was a considered a separate state -- the deceased was now the sah -- that depended-upon/reinforced-by the coffin.

The outer coffin represented the cosmos: the lid was associated with sky; the case was associated with the earth. Within this universe was one or more inner coffins. These inner coffins represented the deceased in a transfigured state, as Osiris. At times the entire outer coffin was associated with Nut, the sky-goddess and mother of Osiris. Thus being encased within the coffin reinforced the deceased as Osiris. The use of gold gilding, orpiment paint or even just yellow paint recalled divinity and the sun-god Ra. This evoked rebirth and the dawn of a new day.

Anthropoid rishi coffins became standard in Thebes during the New Kingdom. A novel development by the 19th Dynasty was a lively depiction of the deceased: pleated linen garments (sometimes painstakingly made of plaster); a fashionable festal wig; and hands in active poses. These coffins typically had polychrome decoration on a yellow background, invoking notions of Ra and the sun.

Coffins were usually of native timber such as sycamore fig. A high-status person typically had two anthropoid coffins. The mummy-mask gave way to the mummy-board, a ½, ¾- or (usually) full-length cover of painted wood or cartonnage that was placed directly over the mummy. This gave the mummy a greater surface area that could be kept in contact with divine symbols.

Mummy board

A mummy board would rest on the corpse.

Canopic jars

Canopic jars stored the liver, lungs, stomach and intestines each in their own jar. Each jar was entrusted to one of the four Sons of Horus, either Imsety (liver), Hapy (lungs), Qebehsenuef (intestine) or Duamutef (stomach). Isis and Nephthys protected Imsety and Hapy. Neith and Selkis protected Duamutef and Qebehsenuef. Some people could not afford full, expensive mummification and would not be eviscerated. Regardless, it was custom to place canopic jars in the tomb; quickly fashioned canopic jars (for instance, in the event of a sudden death) were sometimes even solid. Regardless what they contained (nothing, organs or solid) they would have appeared externally normal. Despite being solid or empty, canopic jars could still have magical effects due to their sculptural and textual invocations of the four Sons of Horus.

Starting in the 19th Dynasty, canopic jars were often limestone, calcite or painted wood. The body of the jar was squat with a prominent shoulder. Each lid had an animal had representing the Son of Horus protecting the organ within. There were three or four bands, containing a standardized inscription. Canopic jars were often kept in a chest may have had a sledge attached as either a separate component or a part of the carving. This recalls the sledge used to pull the coffins to the burial chamber, and also would make it possible for the deceased to tug the magical and (non-existent) organ faculties of the canopic jars through the afterlife.


The notion of a shawabti was transitioning during 19th Dynasty. It had begun as a finely crafted sculpture that served as a receptacle for the deceased's ka to receive offerings. The single (or few) shawabti in a tomb were made of painted wood, stone or faience. They bore the shabti spell (Coffin Texts Spell 472). The shawabti evolved and by the Late Period was a mere servant; burials contained a crudely-made shawabti for each day of the year.

In Deir el-Medina, 19th Dynasty shawabti oft had a white or yellow background with polychrome decoration. 18th Dynasty iconography continued: crosed arms, hoes, baskest and the shabti spell. Sales receipts already noted shawabti as slaves; they were smaller, simpler and as many as twenty were kept in a tomb. Yet many shawabti were depicted with festal wear: pleated robes, a full wig, a collar and bracelets. Some embraced a ba bird.

The shawabti chests are often meant to invoke tall shrines and are all out of wood. Their use of yellow/gold connotes divinity, with green connoting rebirth/life and red connoting life. These three themes are interpolated into the abstract architectural features: doorways/entryways are discernible, as are arches. Other shawabti chests are coffin-shaped, complete with a sledge as is needed to draw a coffin to the tomb, recalling the waning belief that the shawabti is a receptacle for the ka to inhabit so that it may receive offerings and draw nourishment.

Utilitarian items

Ancient Egyptians took to their tomb many of the same implements used by the living. Some of these had actually been used by that individual. Used items usually exhibit wear and signs of repair. Other utilitarian items were made specifically for the tomb. These were often of flimsy construction since they were not worn and torn. Examples are leather loinclothes and linen garments.

Sandals were especially important, and sometimes even placed within the coffin. They were essential for treading through the afterlife, and without them one impeded their ability to walk safely across dangerous surfaces (or the ability to walk at all).

Cosmetics and recreation were necessary. A cosmetics box could have stored beautifying powders, as ancient Egyptian men and women were very keen on makeup use to hide signs of aging. Toys would also offer diversion, and their subject matter could offer divine protection. A game box for playing senet would have proven invaluable, as senet was a common game and would have helped to pass idle hours in the afterlife.

Tools of the deceased's trade were included. A scribe would also bring palettes, inkwells, brushes and cubit rods; a sculptor would bring a chisel and other related tools. By taking these tools with him to the afterlife, he could thus ensure the continuation of his prosperity and status.

Furniture was also important. Smaller items could all be stored in a chest of drawers. Beds and headrests helped ensure a restful sleep. Further, the headrest could help protect the head; a prevalent fear in ancient Egypt was that the head would be stolen while navigating the afterlife.


Microscopic examination of loaves and cakes from tombs have shown them to be substandard, contaminated and predominantly chaff. These and other food offerings were likely just tokens. It is unlikely that an offering of actual comestibles was expected to nourish the deceased throughout eternity.

By the Old Kingdom the burial of real food was superseded by magic, including offering cults, images and models. However, the practice of including comestibles resurged in the New Kingdom. During the New Kingdom, this practice was particularly popular in Thebes, where the climate favored preservation.



Early Dynastic

All but the poorest graves contained storage jars of stone or pottery filled with grain, water, beer or wine. Dynasty 1 and 2 graves had sometimes vast amounts of these foodstuffs. Furthermore, bread, cakes and cooked meats were oft placed in the grave; in some cases laid out on plates and in bowls as a multi-course feast. Other times, just the raw materials for comestibles -- not the finished product -- were interred with the deceased.

Old Kingdom

By the Old Kingdom, limestone boxes were included with joints of meat, bread and cakes. However, by this time other methods of nourishing the dead were predominating. The practice of providing tangible foodstuffs waned until its practice was resurgent during the New Kingdom.

New Kingdom

Graves from Dynasty 18-20 have yielded many loaves, cakes, fruits and other comestibles. Tombs of kings and other high elites even included wooden boxes containing meat which had been mummified, wrapped in linen and sometimes even coated with resin or oil. The wooden boxes typically depicted the contents; a portion of duck meat would be enclosed in a box shaped like a duck.

Hollow papyrus statuette

Oft included in high-status tombs of the New Kingdom was a wooden mummiform statuette hollowed out to contain a papyrus. Its design was conserved as a shrouded mummiform body from which the hands occasionally protruded. Such statuettes typically had: a red, green or gilded face; a tripartite wig; and a headdress composed of twin plumes, ram's horns and a solar disc. These statuettes stood at the far end of a long base. Many had a cavity containing a papyrus roll. These statuettes combine elements primarily of Sokar and Ptah and secondarily of Osiris.

Such a statue would have provided great benefit to the owner. This one at the British Museum belonged to the scribe Hunefer, who lived during the early 13th century BC. It represents Osiris as a mummy, and the painted hieroglyphics invoke Osiris and Anubis to grant the deceased Hunefer unrestricted access to the afterlife. Such representations of Osiris are unusual as the deceased himself was supposed to become Osiris. Regardless, the protection conferred by the inscription was useful. Furthermore, the papyrus inside helped the deceased navigate the afterlife.

Magic bricks

Tombs of the 19th dynasty were equipped with magic bricks of unbaked mud placed in niches; there was one brick in each of the tomb's four corners. Each brick supported an amulet: a djed pillar; a jackal; a torch; or a mummiform figurine. Furthermore, each magic brick had a text (pat of Book of the Dead Spell 151) conferring a protective role against Osiris' enemies.

The djed brick was to be in the west wall corner. The torch was to be in the south wall corner. An Anubis of incense and unbaked clay was to be in the east wall corner. The mummiform figurine was to be in the north wall corner. Spell 151 specified all this, but ancient Egyptians were sometimes confused and mistakes often appear in the texts and positioning. Magic bricks of Henutmehyt at the British Museum.

Ka statue

Another prominent feature in the tomb chapel was a statue of the deceased that his vital essence (ka) occupied to receive offerings. Most statues were of stone and featured the deceased life-size and sitting, sometimes with his spouse, mother and/or other relatives; statues of wood sometimes featured the figure(s) standing. The statue was positioned in the chapel and was fully visible to the visitor. Statues could be either freestanding or cut from the living rock. By the 19th Dynasty, these figures reflecting changing hairstyles and some degree of fashion.

Tomb construction


Ancient Egyptians associated the west with the afterlife, as it was where the sun set and was also the location of a vast desert. The tomb was oriented north-south, with the face turned to the west. This positioned the deceased looking from the west (afterlife) toward the east and the rising sun (rebirth). The Nile (which runs north/south) was used to determine orientation.


A typical saff tomb had five parts: outer (courtyard and pyramid) and inner (cult place, sloping passage and burial place). The courtyard was enclosed with a wall. At its far end was a cult place (the chapel) topped by a small brick pyramid. A steep blocked-off passage led from the cult place into the subterranean burial apartments.

New Kingdom chapels more mostly of religious use and hosted the funerary rites. Reduction in commemorative use was perhaps due to humility from realizing that all mortuary cults (whereby personnel provided regular nourishment) eventually faded. Regardless, appealing cult chapels were favored as they attracted offerings by currying visitors. Entryways to the chapel were surmounted by the name of the deceased and a request for offerings (and perhaps even a blessing to visitors).

The pyramid superstructure held a stela and together they connected to Ra and Osiris. The pyramid itself invoked Ra, and the stela depicted Ra (on its left/eastern side) and Osiris (on its right/western side). Sometimes positions were reversed. The stela also depicted the deceased receiving offerings. Another external Osirian feature of the New Kingdom tomb was a small orchard to shelter and nourish the ba. However, placed with a tenuous water situation (like Deir el-Medina) likely made this impossible.

Stela would have stood at either side of the courtyard and also at opposite sides in the tomb chapel itself. As in the second-over stela, additional stelae perhaps invoked other deities, including Ptah.

Wall decorations

The walls of the chapel were extensively decorated in relief and/or paint. Corners, doorways and other architectural walls demarcated boundaries of scenes. Within these scenes a single subject or event was depicted. In some cases this was developed into Bildstreifenstils where the walls were break into upper and lower strips, with each strip depicting sequential events horizontally and spreading across multiple walls. The upper strip might portray the world of the gods, while the lower strip might depict scenes of the funerary cult and afterlife.

Decorations were especially important. A childless person may have focused on enticing visitors to his chapel, and also incurring favor with the gods in case visitors' offerings were sparse. One technique would have been to make his tomb chapel decorations attractive, entertaining and relatable. The depiction of everyday scenes with amusing dialogue would have served this purpose. However, these scenes would have needed to serve the additional purpose of provisioning. For example, one could have depicted the slaughter of an oxen by a novice farmer. The farmer might confusedly try slaughtering the oxen at its back end, resulting in a firm whack in the face by the oxen's tail. This would not only attract amused visitors, but provide meat. ONe could have also tried to incur particular favor with the gods in order to compensate for the likely weakness of his mortuary cult. This may have consisted of invoking Ra, Osiris, Ptah and others in a particularly redundant manner.

Labor and finance

Workmen would have cut the tomb out of the rock using flint tools and copper-alloy chisels. The walls and ceilings of the tomb were then covered in a layer of mud plaster, followed by a layer of white plaster. This provided a smooth surface for painting. The tomb-chapel was painted by a team of artists. They first sketched out the designs and figures before painting the final pattern. Sometimes the sketches can still be seen, showing how the artists changed their minds. The artists used black, white, red, yellow, blue and green paints. ... The walls of the chapel facade were decorated with rows of pottery cones stamped with the names and titles of the owner. 2

The above excerpt describes the labor that went into creating a tomb chapel. This process would realistically have taken 12-18 months and would have been typically constructed by the future occupant. Self-interest ensured that the tomb was erected, as upon death any number of factors could derail its construction. In some cases the tomb was not built before death, or remained unbuilt. To ensure it still was built, Egyptian law dictated that assets of the deceased were inherited by he who completed the burial. This extended even to complete strangers, but more often applied to situations where relatives competed for inheritance.

Burial ritual

The mummified corpse was purified before being placed in the coffins, much in the same way it was purified shortly after death and before embalming. Relatives accompanied the corpse in the coffins as it was pulled to the tomb by oxen or male friends of the deceased. Funerary statues were all vivified at their completion, and upon arriving at the tomb the corpse itself was vivified. Vivification occurred via the Opening of the Mouth and Eyes ritual.

The Opening of the Mouth involved touching of the eyes and mouth with: three types of adze; a weret-hekau; a chisel; a finger-shaped instrument. Each episode was accompanied by incantations. Once the ritual was complete, the deceased was able to use his eyes and mouth to observe its surroundings and draw nourishment. The ka of the deceased was linked to the statues in the tomb, and sometimes to the tomb chapel reliefs as well.

The Offering Ritual supplied the deceased with nourishment for eternity. This was performed first immediately after the Opening of the Mouth. It comprised of several individual rituals: purifications, libations, burning of incense, presentation of food and drink. Actual food and drink were placed in the chapel and the hetep di nesu formula was pronounced. This was the most important ritual and was repeated at intervals after the burial.

The actual burial was last. The body and its funerary goods were placed in the tomb and the entrance to the burial chamber was sealed. Cattle were slaughtered, with the choicest parts of the animal offered to the dead. The remainder was consumed by relatives and mourners at a feast.

Remnants of this banquet were sometimes ritually buried, forming deposits that have included goose, duck, sheep and/or goat as well. Participants withdrew while final rituals to protect the tomb were performed. The deceased was armed and ready to counter various obstacles and become Osiris.

Old Kingdom

Middle Kingdom

New Kingdom


Magic bricks

✔ (Dyn 19)


Taylor, John. 2001. Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. Chicago. University of Chicago Press. (General Reference)

Cooney, Kara. 2007. The Cost of Death. Leiden. Nederlands Instituut Voor Het Nabije Oosten. (General Reference)

Cooney, Kara. 2009. AN N EA 166. UCLA. Course Notes. (General Reference)