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Wailing women at a funeral
Funerals for commoners are believed to have been relatively simple affairs in which friends and family gathered and the deceased was buried while prayers were read. Funerals for royals, aristocrats and high officials and priests were more public and elaborate affairs that included a funeral procession, magic rites and climaxed with a funerary feast and the sealing of the tomb.

In the world's oldest known will, Nek'ure, the son of an Egyptian Pharaoh who died in 2601 B.C., provided for the disposition of 14 towns and estates, which were distributed among his wife, three children and an unknown woman. Hieroglyphic on the wall of his tomb read the young Egyptian royal would make decisions "while living upon his two feet and not ailing in any respect."

Ancient Egyptian Funeral Procession

The first part of the funeral for a Pharaoh or other important person was a procession down to Nile, where they were everyone was loaded into two boats to the cemetery. Professional mourners accompanied by procession and wailed loudly, rubbed dirt and garbage on themselves and pulled their hair and clothes.

Funerals usually began in the morning with people gathering at the house of the deceased. The gathering included family members, friends, priests, attendants, singers and professional mourners. During the procession a tekenu (a stand in for the deceased that served as a scapegoat for evil deeds) was dragged by oxen on a sled. It was followed by a “reserve body” statue of the deceased---usually accompanied by priests and attendants--- that was buried with the deceased. Food and objects were carried for a feast and to be buried with the dead.

The centerpiece of the procession was a boat that carried the coffin. It was mounted on a sled, engraved and covered with embroidery. Near the coffin were two kneeling, living women playing the roles of Isis and Nephthys, two goddesses that helped protect and guide the dead during their afterlife journey.

Opening the Mouth Ceremony

Offering bearers
The most important ceremony at the funeral was the “opening of the mouth ceremony,” performed by a priest who played the role of Horus. After the deceased was taken from the boat important spells and prayers were chanted, while the priest touched the deceased’s face and face of the reserve body with a sacred flint stone. This symbolically opened the eyes and mouth of the deceased for the afterlife.

With mouth of the deceased open and able to eat, the feast could commence. The tekenu was ritually “killed” and the oxen that dragged it were sacrificed. The right foreleg, symbolizing virility, of one of the slaughtered animals was presented to the deceased.

During the final goodbye to the dead, prayers were chanted that ensured safe the passage for the dead to the afterlife. Incense were burned. Libations were poured. And the body was placed in the tomb. If the deceased was poor he was placed in a hole. If he was rich he was placed in a sarcophagus within the tomb along with numerous objects for the journey. Some grave objects were “killed,” broken, so they could be used immediately by the deceased. Finals prayers were said as the tomb was filled with rocks and resealed with mortar by a mason. While the mason was doing his job, people sat down by the tomb and feasted in honor of the dead.

Pharaoh’s Funeral

The day before a Pharaoh’s funeral the king's mummy was placed in the royal palace to lie in state. On the day of the funeral itself the Pharaoh's widow stood at the mummy's feet reciting formulas of rebirth. Then a procession carried the coffin to a temple for four days of rituals.

After this the deceased pharaoh was taken to his tomb. His successor touched his mouth and eyes to open them for eternal life; burial furniture was brought in, and the king's coffin was set upright; and finally the tomb was sealed. Usually the first thing the new pharaoh did when he claimed the throne was erase the name of his predecessor on all the monuments in the empire and replace them with his own.♀

Opening the Mouth

Ships and the Pharaoh’s Funeral

Ships played a central role in the funerals of pharaohs. The Egyptians believed that royal barges carried the pharaohs to heaven and believed the sun-god Ra traveled through the sky during the day and the netherworld at night in a boat. Boats were buried near pharaohs so they could do the same thing for them. Perhaps more than anything else these vessels showed importance in ancient Egypt of boats---the primary source of transportation up and down the Nile, where the ancient culture was centered.

The Pharaohs’ funerals ships were often very large and were buried with great care in elaborate tombs. Only a few such tombs have been discovered. The whole exercise was so expensive and was likely only done for particularly wealthy or esteemed pharaohs.

Images of boats first appeared in 3200 B.C. Ancient boats that were 4,900 year old were found in the graves of the first pharaohs.

An Egyptian shipwreck that produced a gold scarab with Queen Nefertari's name was dated with tree rings from logs in ship to 1316 B.C. A jewel encrusted pendant found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb featured a jeweled boat topped by jeweled baboons and scarabs. Objects found with buried funerary boats include miniature “solar barks,” with symbols of the sun gods.


Royal Bark of Khufu

One of the most spectacular objects found at the pyramids of Giza other than the pyramids themselves was the royal bark of Khufu, a 142-foot-long boat excavated from one of five large carved rock chambers on the east side of the Pyramid of Cheops. Hieroglyphics inside the chambers where the boat were found seem to indicate it were was by Khufu’s son Djedefre. The royal bark is now displayed in the boat museum near the Great Pyramid of Khufu. [Source: Farouk El-Baz, Peter Miller, National Geographic, April 1988]

The royal bark of Khufu was made up of 1,224 components and was found in a pit that was 102 feet long, 11½ feet deep and 8 ½ wide. The planks of the boat were sewn together transversely (most sew ships are sewn together longitudinally). The rudderless boat was propelled and steered by ten 26-foot oars. It has narrow beam and a high, elegantly tapered stem and stern posts, a deck house, four pointed oar blades. The design is similar to that of papyrus river crafts. There was no sign of any masts, sails or rigging.

Archaeologists are not sure what the vessel was used for. Many think it was the sacred boat buried by Khufu’s son Djedefre for use by the dead pharaoh in the afterlife or to carry him on his journey in the afterlife. Others believe it carried the mummified body of Cheops from Memphis to Giza. To get the boat inside the entrance to the chamber it was taken apart and reassembled inside the tomb. There is evidence that boat was used in the water (marks in pieces left by the ropes used to bid the ship together).

Egyptian Ships, See Transportation

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Funeral of a Mummy by Frederick Arthur Bridgman

Excavating the Royal Bark of Khufu

The royal bark of Khufu was discovered in 1954 when a mountain of debris was removed from the south face of the great Pyramid and investigators found two pits carved in the bedrock. The chambers were covered with limestone blocks that weighed 15 tons and were up to two meters thick. The first boat was excavated in the 1950s. It was almost perfectly preserved in a chamber that was so well sealed a person who entered it after it was opened said he smelled “vapors, perfumes of the wood, sacred wood of the ancient religion.” Excavating the bark and carefully reconstructing it took several years.

The second chamber was examined with an underground camera in the 1980s. Drilling through the two-meter-thick limestone block took 48 hours. It was hoped that this chamber was sealed but it was not. The air in it was almost the same the air outside the tomb. The boat there was not in nearly as good of condition as the first boat. Why was there more than one boat? There are depictions of funerary barks being pulled by another vessel.

See Remote Sensing of Tombs and Chambers Under Archaeology

Ancient Egyptian Mourning Period and Burials

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funerary boat
The death of a pharaoh was followed by a 70 day period of mourning in which normal life came to an abrupt halt. During that period no one was allowed to drink wine, eat meat, bath, conduct sacrifices or have sex. People were expected to weep openly in the streets to express their sorrow. Professional mourners covered their heads with mud and sang dirges. Husbands and wives sometimes mourned their deceased spouses by limiting their intake of food and water for several months and going celibate for several years.

Egyptian dead were always buried, never cremated. Up until Islamic times, the dead in Egypt were buried facing the rising sun in the East with the head pointing to the north. Cemeteries were always on the western side of the Nile because the sun set in the west. Often they were close enough to the river so that funeral processions coming down the Nile could easily reach the graves.

Ancient Egyptians who died around 3500 B.C. were often laid to rest lying on a mat on their left side in the fetal position, facing the west and the setting sun. In some cases the bodies were decapitated after death and placed back on the body in the tomb, which appears to indicate ritual dismemberment and reassemblage.

Most mummies wee anonymous. The likenesses on the coffins often looked nothing like the mummy inside but were idealized representations. Royal mummies were placed in a series of coffins, which went inside a sarcophagus which went into a series of shrines. The inner coffins and the tombs were inscribed with hieroglyphic texts of protective spells. Some coffins were made of basalt. Some sarcophagus were made of red granite. the lid of a large sarcophagus could weigh 2.7 tons and be covered with hieroglyphics on one side and the goddess Nut in a transparent gown on the other. There were also reusable coffins.

The outer coffin for King Tutankhamun was adorned with garlands of willow and olive leaves, wild celery, lotus pedals and cornflowers which suggests he was buried in the spring. See King Tutankhamun (King Tut).

Human sacrifices may have been practiced by the earliest pharaohs (See History). Real people were not sacrificed and buried with the dead as was the case sometimes with the Mesopotamians and other cultures. This practice may have been practiced in the early days, which possibly is how the custom of burying substitutes and shabti figures began.

Ancient Egyptian Tombs

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The wealthy were buried in elaborate tombs that were decorated with paintings from their lives and hieroglyphics that described their family, their achievements, offerings made at their funeral and a lists of feast days. Sometimes they featured battle scenes and scenes from everyday life like bread making, grain grinding and beer making.

Large houses, temples and tombs all had similar plans with a main court, hall and private rooms. This was also true with Greek architecture. The Old Kingdom tombs were called mastabas. They were generally built of mud and stone above ground. Many were pyramid shaped. Later tombs were built underground.

Many tombs had hidden doors and false doors (from which the dead could commune with the living and receive offerings) and real doors sealed with mud. The false often had hieroglyphic that identified the deceased. Some even had washbasin and toilets. Some tombs had viewing holes, not so the people could look in the tomb, but so the pharaoh could look out and perhaps see the stars. [Source: David Roberts, National Geographic, January 1995]

Tombs were often filled with hieroglyphics. The text on the walls helped the deceased on the journey to the afterlife. These included magical incantations and lists of accomplishments and good deeds.

Tombs were sealed after the funeral but sometimes above them were chapels where mourners could come and pay their respects and priests could conduct rituals for the dead. Priests delivered meals to the dead by symbolically offering them to images of the deceased, who sort of magically inhaled the food. What was left over was often consumed by the priest or their families (the offerings were often the equivalent of their wages).

Ancient Egyptian Tomb Paintings

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Nefertari tomb
Tombs of kings, queens and nobles were typically decorated with murals with images of deities and people known to the deceased. Sometimes there were images of the daily lives of ordinary people. Images in tombs are often accompanied by texts from the Book of the Dead , which sometimes explain what is going on in the picture. Some of the greatest existing works of Egyptian art are the tomb paintings in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, particularly the tomb of Neferteri.

Tombs typically contained: 1) images of the deceased performing tasks from everyday life or doing some great deed or achievement; 2) images of the deceased making offerings or sacrifices to Gods such as Anabus, Isis and Orissis; 3) images of cobras, gods with weapons or scorpions on their head intended to keep evil spirits from entering the tomb and protect the deceased; 4) images of deceased at the gates of the Nether World asking for permission to enter. To pass through each gate the deceased had to say the name of the gate and the god that guards it.

The deceased is often pictured proceeding on a journey to the nether world, on which he or she comes in contact with different gods and acquires their power and then caries their symbols with him or her. The ceilings of the tombs often feature a dark blue sky with thin, tightly-packed, five-pointed golden stars. There are often images of farmers, cooks, musicians, rowers---people who could carry out duties in the afterlife.

The head of the deceased is often pictured on the body of the bird Alba, whose duty it was to carry the soul of the dead to the Nether World. Maate, the winged Goddess of Justice and the winged serpent are often present, with her wings spread, on lintels over doorways in the tombs of pharaohs and their wives in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens.

Heirakonpolis contains one of the oldest tomb painting. Created in 3200 B.C., it features stick-like figures. Some of the tombs have been dated to 5000 B.C..

Ancient Egyptian Tomb Sculptures

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Nefertari tomb
Statues of the deceased called ushabti (shabtis) were placed in tombs next to the mummy. These were not intended for the public to see or as a memorial. They were a substitute for the person should something happen to the mummy, or they could be offered by the deceased as substitute if he was called on to do something unpleasant in the afterlife.

The sculptures were often made of stone with the understanding that that meant they could last for eternity. If something happened to the mummy the pharaoh's Ka , or vital force, could move into the sculpture. Because they possessed ka, statues were regarded as powerful and even dangerous.

Some tombs contained "reserve heads" made from plaster casts of the mummified head which served the same purpose. The face on the sculpture had to recognizable, lest the ka get confused and inhabit the wrong statue.

Ushabti were also included with the dead to perform the labors of the gods. These were often small exquisite small statues of ordinary people---such as potters, butchers and cooks, performing their daily chores such as rolling dough, cutting meat, kneeling at a harp and working a pottery wheel---that were brought along to perform these duties in the afterlife. Some men brought along carved stone "divine concubines" The sculptures were often incredibly lifelike. The eyes of some statues were inlaid with quartz crystal.

Ancient Egyptian Tomb Contents

Tombs were often filled with belongings that the dead would take with them to the afterlife. The needs of the dead were similar to those of the living. Objects found in tombs included food, wine, jewelry, chariots, games, toys, cosmetics, cosmetic spoons, tubes to store eyeliner, jars of moisturizer, musical instruments, boats, pots held oil and fat, steaks and veal chops, sacrificed bulls, mummified birds, cats and baboons, gold funerary masks made to last for centuries, and living-room furniture to "make the afterlife more comfortable.”

A tomb from 3150 B.C. of an Egyptian king, who may have been known as Scorpion I, contained a shrine, an ivory scepter, jars for oils, fats, bread, beer, cedar boxes for clothing, stone vessels, and ivory and bone objects, and three rooms full of jars of wine. The wine is believed to have been produced in Israel. Graves of the wealthy elite dated to 3500 B.C. contained flint figurines, beautiful pottery, and the earliest known funerary masks---expressive faces made with fired clay and featuring cut out eyes and molded ears.

Tomb of Seti I

Widows used to bury a lock of their hair with their deceased husbands as a charm and perhaps symbolizing a vow to always be with her husband.

King Tut's Tomb

King Tutankhamen's Tomb (Valley of the Kings) is one of the most visited tombs in the Valley of the Kings and has a separate admission price. Its discovery in 1922 was one of the greatest archeological discoveries of all time. Tutankhamen was only a minor king---he didn't build a pyramid or any great temples or monuments and he died before he was 21---but it just so happens that his tomb was one of the few in the Valley of the Kings with a treasure missed by looters.

King Tutankhamun Tomb is located 26 feet underground. It was constructed from the relatively small unfinished tomb of courtier after the king died at an early age. Objects for the afterlife were crammed in the tomb and the paintings were so hastily prepared that splashes of paint that cover some of the images was not cleaned up. Some of the burial objects appear to have belonged to others (their names were erased and replaced with King Tutankhamun’s name).

Tutankhamen was well prepared for his trip to the afterlife. His four-room tomb yielded gold treasures; gilt coffins with images of the king emblazoned on the them; a glittering throne with palace scenes; effigies of gods and goddesses; a chest inscribed battles scenes; and jeweled daggers, earrings, necklaces and other riches. The most famous object found in it was Tutankhamun’s blue and gold funerary mask, which has been pictured in many books and magazines. All of these things are in the Egyptian museum, except when they are on tour.

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King Tut's tomb

Some painting in the tomb depict Tutankhamun funeral procession. After the funeral procession, his successor, Aye, symbolically revives the dead. Nut, the sky goddess welcomes Tutankhamun to the realm of the gods, and Osiris, god of the afterlife, embraces him along with his ka , or spiritual double. Baboons on the far wall represent the start of his passage through 12 hours of the night.

Two small female fetuses were found in the tomb. DNA testing in 2010 determined the they were Tutankhamun’s two still-born daughters.

See Howard Carter and Discovery of Tutankhamun’s Tomb in 1922 Under Ancient Egyptians Archaeology

King Tutankhamen Collection

The King Tutankhamen Collection (on the top floor of the Egyptian Museum) contains nearly 5,000 objects. Among them are the famous blue-and-gold funerary mask. The mask is made of beaten gold. The beard on the masks identifies the king as being one with Osiris, god of the dead, and the cobra and vulture on his forehead symbolize the Upper and Lower kingdoms of Egypt. A life-size statue of the king, which was found at the entrance of the tomb, is dressed in gilded clothing and was anointed in black resin to denote rebirth.

The mummy was enclosed in a coffin, a sarcophagus and four decorated and gilded wooden shrines---one inside the other. The shrines had images of the king emblazoned on the them. The largest, outer golden shrine is 9 feet high, 10¾ feet wide and 16½ feet long. It is inlaid with panels of brilliant blue faience with depictions of special symbols that protected the dead. The innermost one was covered in gold. The sarcophagus is made of yellow quartzite and has a sculpted goddess spreading protecting arms and wings over the feet area. Each shrine and the sarcophagus is displayed separately.

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King Tut's throne

King Tutankhamun’s polished gold coffin weighs 250 pounds and is inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones. On the lid is a low relief golden effigy of the king. The figure holds a crook and flail, both of which symbolize the king's power. Guarding the coffin during ancient times was the goddess Selket, who was so powerful, it was said, she could cure the string of the scorpion which she wears on a crown on her head. During the Six Day War the coffin was stored in a secret bomb proof shelter.

King Tutankhamun’s tomb is regarded as the the richest royal collection every found. When the king’s coffin was opened, 143 amulets and pieces of jewelry were found tucked in the linen layers of the mummy. Also in the collection is a 15.3 inch coffin for the pharaoh's liver. Only the heart remained in the body when it was mummified. Another coffin contained his viscera.

Many of big items were found in the anteroom outside the burial chamber. These include gold couches, four gold chariots, a golden throne, alabaster vases and scores of personal items of the king---all of which are on display. The king’s wooden throne is covered in sheets of gold, silver, gems and glass and is decorated with an intimate scene of the queen rubbing Tutankhamun with perfumed oil.

Tutankhamun’s clothes chest is decorated with a scene showing the king shooting his bow and arrow from a chariot while galloping at full speed, trampling Nubians under the wheels of his chariot. Tutankhamun was buried with six chariots, 50 bows, two swords, two daggers, eight shields and assorted boomerangs and slingshots. An inscription of the chest reads "hundreds of thousands of Nubians bowed to him during the battle."

There is also a beautiful painted effigy; a feminized alabaster bust; a walking stick adorned with carvings of Arabs and Nubians; a boat with an ibex bowhead and a nude maiden captain; and statue of Anubis, the jackal god of the necropolis, whose job it was to discourage intruders. So that he may gaze upon himself and procreate in the afterlife the king was buried with a mirror shaped like an ankh, the symbol of life, and pieces of jewelry adorned with scarabs, the symbols of fertility.

King Tutankhamun was also was buried with ordinary things likes boards games, a bronze razor, cases of food and wine, and linen undergarments. Among the small items are gold daggers for protection in the afterlife; a headrest for rebirth; and an alabaster cup which proclaims "Mayst thou spend millions of years...sitting with thy face to the north wind...beholding felicity." There are also effigies of gods and goddesses, jeweled daggers, earrings, necklaces, 2,000 amulets and pieces of jewelry, gold figures, a leopard skin mantel decorated with gold stars, a child's chair made of ebony and ivory, 15 gold and jeweled rings, seeds, boat paddles, ear and neck ornaments, 50 ornamental vases, robes, sandals, arrows, bows, boomerangs, a forked stick for caching snakes and a lock of hair from Queen Tiye, Tutankhamen's mother.

Tutankhamun scarab

Ancient Egyptian Tomb Workers and Maintenance

Mortuary cults made up of priests and nobleman worshiped dead pharaohs, made periodic religious offered and made sure the mummy was properly fed and dressed. "To ensure a continuous supply of food after death," scholar Daniel Boorstin wrote, "noblemen set aside land as an endowment for priests to feed them."

Decades, even centuries, after the pharaohs died priests still conducted daily rites around the tombs and pyramids. In these rites the priests sprinkled a statue of the pharaoh with perfume, painted on eye shadow and dressed it in new clothes while chanting prayers and mystical formulas. Occasionally a bull was sacrificed in the Sanctuary of the Knife; its throat was slashed, and the blood was captured in a huge bowl, and a foreleg was cut off and placed on the altar.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum, The Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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