Ancient Egyptians believed that a ritual set of burial customs was necessary in order to ensure an afterlife. These rituals included mummification, recitation from funerary texts and burial with artifacts from the deceased person's life. Over time, the funeral ceremonies used in Ancient Egypt evolved, but the key elements persisted: preparation of the body, the saying of magic spells and the inclusion of "grave goods."
The funeral ceremonies used in Ancient Egypt are based on a complex set of religious beliefs. Egyptologists Françoise Dunand and Roger Lichtenberg have noted that the Egyptians believed the physical body and its preservation were important for the afterlife. Rather than practicing cremation or letting the body decompose, they would bury the dead by following a ritualistic process. Failure to follow this process would, many Egyptians thought, lead to the unnatural rising of the dead. However, while the ancient Egyptians believed in an afterlife, it was generally thought that the "average person" could not have one. Only persons who could serve a purpose in the afterlife would be admitted. The pharaohs, for example, would be granted access because of their social status as rulers.
Early Burial Practices
In the early history of Ancient Egypt, bodies were buried in a shallow hole with a few "burial goods" or items from the deceased's life placed around them. When it came to lower class citizens, multiple bodies and even animals would be buried in the same plot. As the civilization progressed, the graves became more intricate. Bodies would be placed in wicker baskets or in wood or terracotta coffins called a sarcophagus. The amount of burial goods also increased as mummified bodies -- at least those of wealthy Egyptians -- were placed in pyramids.
Ancient Egyptians believed that Osiris -- the god of death -- was the gatekeeper of the afterlife. In order to enter the afterlife and be granted immortality, bodies had to be preserved through mummification. The purpose of preserving the body was so that the soul could be reunited with it. The primary means of mummification was by dehydrating a body with natron, a natural mineral similar to the combination of salt and baking soda. The body would then be drained of liquid but the skin, hair and muscles would be left to harden. Mummification was an expensive process, but anyone who could afford it was able to have it done. This did not, however, guarantee entry to the afterlife if the deceased did not serve a purpose there.
While entry into the afterlife was guaranteed for only the richest and most powerful Egyptians, some Egyptians believed that by saying the correct formula of magic spells, they could pay for their deceased family member's way into immortality. After mummification, therefore, a priest would symbolically "reanimate" the body by opening the mummy's mouth and saying a spell. He would then touch the mummy or the sarcophagus with a copper blade. This ensured that the mummy could breathe, speak and perform other bodily functions once in the afterlife. Some priests would also say spells to reanimate the body's appendices. After reanimation, the mummy would be moved to a temple where incense was burned and more ritual spells were said. Here the burial goods were placed with the body. If the body was buried in a pyramid, the entire pyramid would be sealed shut.
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