It’s always interesting to look at how funeral practices in a region change over time. Nowhere is the change more significant than in Egypt, a country known for its ancient practice of mummification. Indeed, Egyptian funerals have changed drastically over the centuries, but it has been a slow, progressive transformation.
Before the days of pharaohs and elaborate tombs, prehistoric Egyptians buried their dead in simple, round graves. The body was not carefully prepared. Rather, it was placed in a large pot and covered with earth. Little is known about the cultural and religious beliefs during this time period since few graves have been found.
Old Kingdom Funerals (2600 – 2100 BC)
As kings came to power, burial practices evolved to include elaborate tombs, shaped as pyramids, for kings and other elite members of society. Mummification, the practice of preserving the body and wrapping it in linen bandages, began during this time. This practice is thought to have evolved out of a growing belief in the afterlife.
Middle Kingdom Funerals (2100 – 1650 BC)
The dynastic pharaohs of Egypt hailed from Thebes, so it was tradition to return their bodies to this region and bury them in the sides of mountains. For lower-ranking officials, however, burial in a plain wooden coffin was common. Mummification was still common, but bodies were now placed on their backs rather than their sides. Most tombs became family tombs, housing the dead from multiple generations.
New Kingdom and Late Period Burials (1650 BC – 30 BC)
During this period, tombs grew into multi-room chambers cut into rock. Pyramids were no longer commonplace, and tombs of officials were fitted with furniture, clothing, jewelry, and other items needed in the afterlife. Later on, temple-like tombs became an option even for the non-elite.
Roman Period to the Arab Conquest (30 BC – 600 AD)
As the Romans gained influence, Egyptian burials began taking on Roman traditions, such as adding Roman-style masks to mummies and covering the feet with a shroud. Roman-style portraits of the deceased were often made and placed in the tombs.
Today, most Egyptians are of the Islamic faith and follow traditional Islamic burial practices including burying the deceased as quickly as possible, covered in simple white linen. Cremation is forbidden, and funerals are a community affair.
From pots, to mummies, to simple linen, Egyptian burial practices have really come full circle over the nation’s history.