What Happens When You Die In Ancient Egypt?

The Egyptians had a very elaborate set of burial customs. Indeed, the idea of the afterlife was a big part of Ancient Egypt’s culture – they took death very seriously. Keep reading to find out what happens when you die in Ancient Egypt!

Mummification

Ancient Egyptian Mummy

Ancient Egyptian Mummy, Credits: pyramids-of-egypt.com

The Egyptians believed that Osiris ruled the dead, and that in order to be presented in front of him, your body had to be preserved by mummification. The process made sure that your body (“Ka”) stayed whole so that your soul (“Ba”) could find it and reunite with it in the Underworld. The first stage was dehydration and removal of internal organs of the body with the help of salt, and it left skin, hair and muscles devoid of any liquids. The dehydration stage lasted up to 40 days. The second stage was slightly shorter (30 days) and involved removing any remaining organs which were placed in Canopic jars, and application of wine and oils. The body was then wrapped in bandages (think walking mummies!) while a priest prayed. The process was said to help you become a somewhat divine being in the afterlife.

Of course, not everyone got to be mummified – only those who could afford it. The Pharaohs’ semi-divine status certainly extended to their posthumous treatment, for example.

Opening of the mouth ceremony

Opening of the mouth ceremony illustration from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer,

Opening of the mouth ceremony illustration from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer, Credits: Wikimedia

Seeing as the mummy was technically dead, it had to be re-animated if it were to live in the Underworld. The opening of the mouth ceremony was carried out for that very purpose by a priest. It was done so that the person could eat and drink in the afterlife. Since the person’s Ka was supported by food and drink in their life on earth, it was believed that the Ka must also receive offerings of sustenance after death.

The ceremony was symbolic, though – a priest would hold a spooned blade or a calf’s leg near your mouth. He would also re-animate arms and legs in the same fashion in some cases, and utter spells.

Burial

Mask of Tutankhamun's mummy

Mask of Tutankhamun’s mummy, Credits: Wikimedia

After the ceremony, the mummy’s face was covered by a golden mask that guarded the soul from the evil spirits on the journey to the underworld, and made it easier to recognize the body. The mummy was then placed in an elaborate coffin or a sarcophagus in accordance with their status in the mortal life. It was then placed in another coffin, and then the outermost coffin. The coffins were then placed in secure tombs, and the tombs were filled with food, drink, and other things Egyptians believed the deceased might need in the afterlife – hence the vast riches of Egyptian tombs our popular culture likes to exploit. The richer you were, the more items you took down into the afterlife with you. Even the poorest Egyptians had some things buried with them, even though they were simply buried in the sand.

The tombs, or the pyramids were sealed (and some even cursed!) so no-one would enter it again and disturb the deceased.

Afterlife

Anubis Shrine,  part of the grave goods of Tutankhamun

Anubis Shrine, part of the grave goods of Tutankhamun, Credits: Wikimedia

Arriving into the afterlife was a process which involved the Weighting of the Heart ceremony administered by a jackal-headed god called Anubis and recorded by Thoth, the god of writing. Forty-two other gods watched as the deceased’s heart was weighed against a feather of Ma’at, the goddess of truth. If the heart was lighter than the feather, the soul could pass onto the afterlife, but if it was heavier, it was devoured by a demon named Ammut. Those who pass the test are taken by Horus on a solar bark to be welcomed by his parents, Osiris and Isis and subsequently reach paradise and eternal life.

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