Numerous tombs of various dates and styles, many containing carefully prepared bodies as well as a variety of funerary goods, reveal an ancient Egyptian belief in life after death. The decoration in some tombs, in paint or relief, includes representations of burial rites and rituals. Some texts from the body of ancient Egyptian literature relate the views of the afterlife and emphasize the need for offerings made in perpetuity. Such archaeological, artistic, and textual evidence show that the burial practices centered around three events: the construction of the tomb; the burial of the body; and the performance of cultic rituals to permit the deceased to attain the afterlife and remain there for eternity.

Tomb Construction.

With the exception of the cenotaph (an empty, honorary monument), such as those built during the Middle Kingdom at Abydos, ancient Egyptian tombs were designed to contain at least one body. Tombs were usually built during an owner's lifetime, to be ready upon his or her death. Tombs were usually built in groups, with others of similar date and similar class, within cemeteries located in the desert. Most of the cemeteries are on the western bank of the Nile River. Tomb structures can generally be divided into three components: the superstructure; the substructure, which often includes the burial chamber; and the shaft or passage that connects the above- and below-ground structures. Originally, not all tombs had all three components, and some tombs have been partly destroyed in the centuries since they were built. Enough well-preserved tombs remain, however, to demonstrate that tomb styles change with time; tomb size and degree of embellishment also often reflect the relative wealth and status of a tomb's owner. Since the king was the most powerful member of society, royal tombs are the most elaborate known from ancient Egypt, and they often show forms different from those of nonroyal tombs.

The earliest Predynastic tombs, such as those in the Nile Delta cemetery of Merimda, consist of simple oval or round pits hollowed out of the sand, wherein the body was placed in a contracted position; sometimes mounds of sand (tumuli) marked the placement of those graves. More elaborate tombs, presumably owned by wealthy and high-status individuals, were developed as early as the late Predynastic, a tomb of that date at the site of Hierakonpolis included a large mud-brick chamber; its western wall was painted with scenes of ships and hunters.

Abydos, site of the burials of the first dynasty kings and those of the last two kings of the second dynasty, provides clear evidence for the elaboration of royal tomb types during the Early Dynastic period. The Early Dynastic royal tombs at Abydos consist of two structures, located some distance from each other; near the cliffs at Umm el-Gaab, where the kings' bodies were placed, lie large mud-brick underground chambers, which are supported and roofed with wooden beams. The superstructures of those tombs had offering niches on their eastern sides, with stelae placed in them. Surrounding the royal burials at Umm el-Gaab were small mud-brick tombs built for the servants of the king, some of whom were sacrificed at the death of their ruler; the Egyptians abandoned such practices before the end of the second dynasty. Closer to the Nile at Abydos, large mud-brick enclosures were built, which contained cultic buildings. Near one were buried twelve boats.

During the Old Kingdom, the elaboration of royal tomb types continued, with the construction of the most famous royal tomb type in Egypt—the pyramid. If modern visitors have attributed many other functions to them, pyramids at the simplest level represent the most visible component of an Old or Middle Kingdom royal tomb complex. The large-scale stone pyramid complexes at Giza of the fourth dynasty kings Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure are the most well known; the main pyramid of these complexes contained the burial chamber for the king and smaller pyramids near the main pyramid contained the burials of royal wives. Elements of such pyramid complexes that emphasized the importance of cultic rituals in royal burials included a chapel built next to one side of the main pyramid, a valley temple built close to the river's edge, and a causeway that connected them. The precursors of many such pyramid-complex elements can be seen in the third dynasty Step Pyramid complex of King Djoser at Saqqara and, to some extent, even earlier at Abydos.

Around the pyramid complexes were clustered many tombs of Old Kingdom officials. These are mastaba tombs (from the Arabic word for “bench”) and are known as early as the Early Dynastic (Archaic) cemeteries, like Saqqara; they have free-standing rectangular superstructures, constructed of mud-brick or stone, which contain one or more rooms. The burial chamber lies below ground. One interior wall of a chamber in the mastaba bears a false door—a carved depiction of a niched doorway. An offering table would have been placed on the floor of the mastaba in front of that doorway; the ka (), a spiritual aspect of the deceased important for his or her nourishment, would come to the false door to partake of the offerings. Some mastaba tombs have very ornate superstructures—the Saqqara mastaba of Mereruka, a vizier under the sixth dynasty king Teti, is justly famous for its large size and complex relief decoration. Texts within such mastaba tombs often state that they or parts of them were given to officials as gifts from the king. Mastaba tombs continued to be built into the twelfth dynasty, yet by the First Intermediate Period, most private tombs were of the rock-cut type.

The main chambers of many officials' tombs of the Middle and New Kingdoms are carved in the cliffs bordering the Nile Valley. The New Kingdom necropolises at Thebes include numerous rock-cut tombs with burial chambers below ground, connected by a vertical or stepped shaft. In front of some of them were courtyards that once contained trees or shrubs. Although many rock-cut tombs have no built superstructures today, the Ramessid tombs of the artisans at Deir el-Medina often included very small pyramidal superstructures. Theban superstructures were sometimes decorated with rows of funerary cones—cone-shaped objects of baked clay whose flat end was often stamped with the name and title(s) of the tomb owner. [See FUNERARY CONES.]

New Kingdom rulers had rock-cut tombs, excavated on the western bank of the Nile at Thebes, in the Valley of the Kings, where the surrounding cliffs effect a naturally occurring pyramidal peak. The tombs in the Valley of the Kings were often extended deep into the cliff face, to include numerous corridors and chambers. The lack of a man-made superstructure may reflect architects' attempts to make such royal tombs less conspicuous than the earlier royal tomb complexes, and so safer from tomb robbers. (Nevertheless, only the relatively small eighteenth dynasty tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered with most of its burial goods still inside.) Since the tomb locations in the Valley of the Kings were supposed to be unknown, funerary cult offerings had to be performed elsewhere; often, they took place in separate royal mortuary temples, also built on the western bank at Thebes but close to the river's edge.

A few architectural components appeared consistently in ancient Egyptian tombs despite regional, chronological, and socioeconomic differences. All tombs contained at least one chamber for the body of the deceased, which might also contain the funerary goods, though a wealthier or more ornate tomb might have extra chambers for burial equipment. A place in the tomb or in an associated structure provided access for the living to place offerings for the deceased. The consistent inclusion of those structural elements makes clear the importance of placing the body in a protective burial chamber, surrounding the body with objects, and making offerings to the deceased.

After a tomb was constructed, it was often decorated. Tombs were decorated with flat painted scenes, with scenes carved in either raised or sunken relief, or with scenes carved in relief and then painted. In the Old and Middle Kingdoms, tomb scenes included activities of the tomb owner and his family. For example, they were shown hunting or fowling in the marshes (which might have had symbolic meaning as well). Some Old and Middle Kingdom tombs included models, small clay or wooden figures engaged in activities similar to those on the walls. By the Ramessid period, in the later New Kingdom, only scenes depicting aspects of the afterlife were used, such as tomb owners adoring various deities. Most earlier decorated tombs showed the deceased receiving offerings: in numerous Old Kingdom tombs, the tomb owner is shown seated on a chair before a small table. Upon and around the table appear all types of food offerings—bread, jars containing liquids, and cuts of meat. Processions of people carrying similar offerings also appear in many tombs.

Sometimes tomb decoration included scenes of the burial itself. The eighteenth dynasty Theban tomb of Kamose, for example, bears on one wall a painting of the funerary procession carrying the tomb owner's funerary goods to his tomb; it included weeping women throwing sand on their heads, in a gesture of mourning, and men carrying chests and pieces of furniture. Scenes in tombs also depicted rites that would have been carried out there, such as the Opening of the Mouth ceremony.

The texts that accompanied the decorative scenes in tombs ranged from short inscriptions identifying individuals and/or their actions and speech to long autobiographical texts describing the tomb owner's life. Many tomb texts pertained to offerings, with the deceased's name and a list of items following an introductory phrase that emphasized the offerings (in theory) coming from the king or a deity. Offerings were also itemized in a list, and they appeared on a wall of the tomb, frequently near the false door. Such lists itemized the names of the goods desired by the deceased, including materials for the tomb and food items, sometimes in numbers indicating the amount, in hundreds or thousands.


The process began with the death of the owner and the preparation of the body. In Predynastic burials, bodies were not artificially preserved; the desiccating action of the hot sand in which they were placed was often sufficient to ensure some degree of preservation. Predynastic bodies were usually placed on their left sides, with their faces looking toward the west. In ancient times, the finding of some naturally preserved bodies, caused by shifting desert sands, may have strengthened the Egyptian belief that preservation of the body was necessary for life after death. During the Early Dynastic period, the development of more ornate tomb structures and the use of coffins resulted in the separation of the body from the surrounding sand. Thus, artificial preservation of the body—mummification—became necessary.

From the Old Kingdom, a second dynasty body is known with evidence of rudimentary mummification techniques. The process was perfected in the embalmers' workshop (w'bt; wabet), and by the New Kingdom, the steps in mummification included removal of the brain through the nose; evisceration of the body (except for the heart, which was left in place); drying of the body with a natron (salt) mixture; and the separate drying of the internal organs. After the fourth dynasty, the lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines were each placed in a container; such canopic jars were sometimes held within a canopic chest. By the early Middle Kingdom, the four canopic jars were believed to be under the protection of the four demigods called the Sons of Horus: Imsety, Hapy, Duamutef, and Kebehsenuef. After the body was sufficiently dried, it was wrapped in yards of linen. During Greco-Roman times, the wrappings on mummies showed very ornate patterns, yet the bodies within were often poorly preserved. Amulets were sometimes included among the wrappings, to help protect the deceased. The entire mummification process lasted about seventy days. When completed, the mummy was usually placed inside a coffin, which might be rectangular or anthropomorphic (human-shaped), and might, especially in the cases of royal burials, be enclosed within a sarcophagus. Coffin styles have often provided information about the date of a burial. For example, Middle Kingdom rectangular coffins may bear simple bands of painted hieroglyphs; early New Kingdom anthropomorphic coffins from Thebes were often decorated with painted multicolored feathers, called a rishi pattern.

Scenes and inscriptions from various tombs of pharaonic times illustrate rituals (only some of which may have been performed for most burials) that took place after the preparation of the body. The mummy received food offerings in the wabet weskhet (wʿbt wsḫt; “purification hall”) and was then carried in procession to ritual places named for the sites of Sais and Buto. The tekenu (tknw; a priest crouched on a bier) was then pulled to the tomb; the tekenu procession included the canopic chest. At the tomb, offerings were presented and a bull was slaughtered. Then priests recited words of protection for the deceased, whose mummy was placed in the burial chamber.

Along with the mummy, burial goods were usually placed within tombs, and some could have been used by the owner while alive, while some were designed solely for use in the tomb and afterlife. Just as analysis of mummies provides information about nutrition and health in ancient Egypt, analysis of grave goods provides glimpses into the Egyptian view of the afterlife. The most basic burial goods found within the tombs of all the pharaonic periods were the ceramic containers for such foodstuffs and drink as bread and beer or wine. Other containers, such as vessels of stone and, especially in the New Kingdom, faience, might also be included among funerary goods. Some tombs included clothing and objects for personal adornment, such as kohl-jars for eye makeup and jewelry of gold and/or silver and semiprecious stones. Wooden furniture, such as chairs and the headrests used for sleeping, might be placed in a tomb. Weapons (such as daggers) and tools (such as chisels and axes) were also placed in tombs. All such objects were similar to or identical with those the deceased would have possessed while alive and suggest that in death the basic necessities of life on earth were required.

Other types of funerary equipment were manufactured solely for use in the tomb. First Intermediate Period tombs and sometimes those of later times contained small-scale statuettes, often depicted holding agricultural implements, such as picks and hoes, and sometimes inscribed with a text describing their duties. The text written on them (chapter 6 of the Book of Going Forth by Day) tells us that funerary figurines, or ushabtis, were designed to work on behalf of their owner in the afterlife. Offering tables, often inscribed with texts, were also manufactured for placement in the tomb. The presence in the tomb of many images of the deceased, which could be used as substitute bodies should the mummy be destroyed, implies the importance of the body's preservation. Although much of the funerary equipment recovered by excavation has been adversely affected by tomb robbery and decay, the types of objects that remain reflect the wealth and status of the tomb owner. For example, meat and metal were limited to high-ranking burials.

Cultic Rituals.

Although archaeological and artistic evidence from Egyptian tombs provide some information about burial practices, knowledge remains incomplete without reference to the texts, including the inscriptions that accompany scenes of cultic activity, the funerary literature, and the autobiographical inscriptions in tombs. Such texts provide a rationale for the construction of tombs. In the most simple terms, before the New Kingdom, tombs were modeled after houses of the living; after the New Kingdom, tombs were constructed to mirror aspects of the afterlife. Texts are particularly useful for delineating the steps involved in the funerary cult, defined here as the ritual activities that centered around the tomb and the deceased.

The Opening of the Mouth ceremony was a burial ritual that accompanied the placement of funerary goods in a tomb—and was a necessary step in the deceased's rebirth. A few New Kingdom tombs (e.g., the Theban tomb of the eighteenth dynasty vizier under Thutmose III, Rekhmire) provided detailed texts and pictures of the rites that formed this ceremony, most components of which probably occurred at the tomb. Served by this ritual were statues, scarabs, sacred animals, temples, and, most importantly, the mummy. New Kingdom scenes show statues being dressed in various materials, purified with water, and offered sacrificed animals. Priests touched the mouth of the object undergoing the ritual with a number of items, to “open” it. A recitation of spells accompanied the actions, to render them effective. When completed, the ceremony supplied inanimate objects with the ability to perform all the functions of a living being.

Most aspects of the funerary cult were designed to continue in perpetuity, for to exist, the deceased's spirit required daily offerings of food, incense, and libations. The deceased's oldest son was responsible for making the daily offerings, and he is often shown doing so on tomb walls; by performing the rituals, the oldest son took on the mythical role of Osiris' son, Horus. Usually, however, a priest hired by the family performed the cultic activity on behalf of the eldest son, and the priest's wages included the use of the offerings after the spirit of the deceased had taken what was wanted. In the early Old Kingdom, three types of funerary priests were identified in tomb representations: the wedpu (wdpw), the wety (wtj), and the khery-wedjeb (ḥrj-wḏb). During the fifth dynasty, the hery-khebet (ḥry-ẖbt; lector-priest) appeared in texts; he was responsible for the recitation of the necessary spells for the deceased. The title hem-ka (ḥm kʒ; “servant of the ka”) first appeared in the Middle Kingdom; that priest, whose Old Kingdom counterpart was called the hem-sekhen (ḥm sḫn), offered the deceased such items as incense and water.

Ritual activities like the festivals of the dead provide evidence for ancient Egyptian ancestor worship, although it usually extended back only a generation or two. Festivals of the dead were held at the new year, among other days, and involved celebrating in the courtyard of the tomb with music, dance, and food. Some other evidence for ancestor worship includes letters written to the dead, which suggest that the deceased spirit could aid—or hurt—the living, and the later so-called ancestor busts that were found in the houses at Deir el-Medina. There were not, it seems, any formal rituals in the funerary cult that centered around the worship of ancestors.

Egyptian funerary literature provides information about the afterlife as the society understood it and helps to illuminate many aspects of the burial process and the funerary cult. The Pyramid Texts, called that because they were found first in an Old Kingdom royal tomb, are the oldest examples of Egyptian funerary texts. Although the earliest Pyramid Texts were discovered in the pyramid of Unas, last king of the fifth dynasty, and some were also found in queens' burials of the late sixth dynasty, yet their language and images seem to reflect an even older tradition, one perhaps first preserved orally. The restriction of the Pyramid Texts to royal burials emphasizes the differences between royal and nonroyal interment during the Old Kingdom—already visible in the monumental scale of the royal pyramid tomb versus the comparatively small nonroyal mastaba. The Pyramid Texts describe in part the dead king's ascension to the heavens as a god, to join the other deities. Biographical inscriptions reveal that during the Old Kingdom, nonroyal individuals did not attain an afterworld but continued to “live” in their tombs; they did not become gods, but their ka lived in proximity to the divine dead king. That religious belief was also represented physically, by the rows of officials' mastaba tombs built near and around the royal pyramids. Prior to the Middle Kingdom, however, nonroyal individuals acquired some access to texts for the afterlife. Certain Pyramid Texts and Coffin Texts began to appear in private tombs. By the eleventh dynasty, and later in the Middle Kingdom, versions of the Pyramid Texts appeared frequently on the walls of tombs of nonroyal officials and on the walls of their coffins. In addition, the Coffin Texts—the later, private version of funerary literature derived in part and edited from the Pyramid Texts—also appeared regularly. These new texts contained knowledge that the deceased required to attain the afterlife, where he or she wished to be in the company of the underworld god Osiris and to travel in the bark of the solar deity Re. Osiris' underworld, which now accompanied the heavenly afterworld seen earlier in the Pyramid Texts, was inhabited by demons and other dangers that the deceased must recognize and be able to circumvent by means of the knowledge contained in this body of information.

By the New Kingdom, another development in funerary literature took place. That set of spells, called the Book of Going Forth by Day (modern editors call it the Book of the Dead) has about two hundred spells. Some individual spells or a set are found inscribed on tomb objects, on jewelry, amulets, and architectural elements—but the largest group are found on rolls of papyrus. In the Book of the Dead, the deceased continued to want to see the gods Osiris and Re in the afterlife (though during the Amarna period, when the ruler Akhenaten worshiped only the solar disk called the Aten, the Book of the Dead spells did not refer to the underworld of Osiris, but instead contained wishes that the deceased receive offerings in the tomb and see the Aten). The afterlife that the deceased hoped to attain was, in many respects, identical to the world of the living. The afterworld was believed to contain a river, like the Nile; there were fields on either side of the river, wherein food was produced; the sun traveled through the sky of the underworld at night after it had set in the west, just as it traveled from east to west through the sky of the physical world during the day. This daily “death” of the sun lead to the placement of most cemeteries on the western bank of the Nile, as well as the placement of some burials with the heads or faces toward the west.

To reach the underworld, the deceased had to be judged free of sin. The Book of the Dead Spell 125 described the judgment of the dead that allowed each one to become an Osiris. The vignette accompanying that spell showed the deceased, dressed in white robes, entering before the god Osiris and the forty-two deities who served as judges. Believed to be the seat of an individual's character (and thus important enough to be left inside the mummy), his or her heart appeared on one pan of a balance-scale, with the feather of Maat, goddess of righteousness, on the other pan. A creature with the head of a crocodile waited nearby, to eat the heart if judged unworthy, and so condemned the unfortunate deceased to a permanent, second death. If the deceased was judged worthy maʿa-kheru (mʒʿ ḫrw; “true of voice”), he or she was allowed to enter the presence of Osiris for eternity.

When studying ancient Egyptian burial practices, the limits of the available evidence must be respected. Most Egyptians could not afford to pay for the construction of a tomb, to outfit it with funereal goods, to maintain the cult after the funeral, or to hire priests to conduct the necessary rituals; they may have been buried in simple shafts dug into the desert sand. To some degree, then, the burial practices described above were those of the wealthy and high-ranking. Women, too, remain underrepresented; most often, females appear within tombs only as wives, mothers, or daughters of the male tomb owners. High-ranking women, were, however, sometimes accorded the same or similar burial practices as men (see Erik Hornung, Valley of the Kings, translated by David Warburton [New York: 1990], for a discussion of royal burial practices from the Valley of the Queens tomb of Nofretari).

Within limits, the evidence shows all elements of ancient Egyptian burial practices were designed to work together, to permit the deceased to achieve spiritual immortality. The body was carefully mummified and placed in the burial chamber; should it somehow be destroyed, substitute bodies were available there in the statues and the two-dimensional depictions of the tomb owner. The priests made offerings of food, drink, and recitations for the spirit of the deceased; should the offerings not be made, they were also available in representations on tomb walls and among the burial goods. Rituals needed to be performed for the spirit of the deceased on a regular basis; if they were not, representations of the rituals on tomb walls, and written versions of the necessary spells on tomb goods and papyri, would serve as substitutes.



  • Allen, Thomas George. The Book of the Dead, or Going Forth by Day: Ideas of the Ancient Egyptians Concerning the Hereafter as Expressed in Their Noun Terms. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization, 37. Chicago, 1974. Comprehensive translation of Book of the Dead spells, noting origin and variants of each; not illustrated.
  • Andrews, Carol, ed. The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. Translated by Raymond O. Faulkner. New York, 1985. Translation of examples of Book of the Dead spells; includes many illustrations of vignettes accompanying spells but no discussion of variants.
  • D'Auria, Sue, Peter Lacovara, and Catharine H. Roehrig. Mummies and Magic: The Funerary Arts of Ancient Egypt. Boston, 1988. Well-illustrated catalog of the Egyptian collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, with numerous essays on topics ranging from social aspects of death to mummification; contains chapters on all major chronological periods and an extensive bibliography.
  • Davies, Nina de Garis, and Alan H. Gardiner. The Tomb of Amenemhet (No. 82). London, 1915. Contains many illustrations of burial rituals. Gardiner's commentary, though dated, provides a good introduction to the rituals accompanying a New Kingdom burial.
  • Faulkner, R. O. The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. 3 vols. Warminster, 1973–1977. Translation of the Coffin Texts, arranged by number, with commentary on translation problems.
  • Harris, James E., and Edward F. Wente, eds. An X-Ray Atlas of the Royal Mummies. Chicago, 1980. Collection of essays (each with bibliography) on such topics as health, dental health, and age at death of Egyptian kings; written on the basis of X-ray analysis.
  • Otto, Eberhard. Das ägyptische Mundöffnungsritual. 2 vols. Ägyptologische Abhandlungen, 3. Wiesbaden, 1960. Provides detailed descriptions of the rituals involved in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, with reference to all original sources.
  • Quirke, Stephen. Ancient Egyptian Religion. London, 1992. Well-illustrated volume, with the chapter on death and the afterlife integrating archaeological and textual evidence.
  • Spencer, A. Jeffrey. Death in Ancient Egypt. New York, 1982. Comprehensive discussion of all aspects of death and the burial process, with an emphasis on archaeological evidence.

Stacie L. Olson