The Cult of the Dead

In Ancient Egypt

Coffin, anthropomorph (detail)Neues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

From the very earliest times, the ancient Egyptians, like people from many other cultures, were convinced that there was a life after death. Gigantic pyramids, impressive funerary temples and elaborate tombs bear witness to their unshakeable belief in eternal life. All kinds of effort, not merely restricted to the architecture of the tomb, were expended to ensure a good passage and a pleasant sojourn in the afterlife. We have an equally detailed picture of this from the decorations of the coffins, the mummification of the dead and the cultic acts at the tomb.

Coffin, anthropomorph (detail)Neues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The conservation of the body was absolutely necessary for a continuing life in the realm of the dead. The ancient Egyptians believed that at first the soul separated from the body in the form of the ba, a human-headed bird, leaving it as a soulless shell. It was not until the body had been mummified and the rituals of resurrection had been performed that the body was ready to accept the soul again and live for eternity in the afterlife. The process of mummification typically took 70 days.

Canopic jars of the lady Ta-mit (3rd Intermediate Period, mid 9th century BCE) by Artist unknownNeues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


Our present-day knowledge about mummification comes
mainly from the writings of the Greek historians Herotodus (5th century BCE)
and Diodorus of Sicily (1st century BCE) and can be confirmed by experiment. To
begin with, the priests removed the internal organs from the body, then
cleansed the body and the organs and dried them with natron. To ensure that the
body remained complete in the realm of the dead, the removed organs were
wrapped in linen strips and placed in four special jars known as canopic jars.
From around the 19th Dynasty (1290–1190 BCE) the lids showed human and animal
heads, the heads of the four sons of Horus.

The jackal-headed Duamutef was responsible for the stomach, and ape-headed Hapi for the lungs.

The human-headed god Amset looked after the liver, and falcon-headed Qebehsenuef the intestines.

Mummy with Mummyportait of a child (family burrial) (Roman Empire) by UnknownNeues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The embalmers anointed the body of the deceased and treated it with scented resins and oils. The heart was embalmed and returned to the body, then the body cavities were filled with various substances and the whole body was wrapped in linen bandages interspersed with various amulets.

Mummy Mask of a woman (Augustus, Oktavian) by Artist unknownNeues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

A death mask made of cartonnage, linen bandages stiffened with plaster, was finally fixed on the head of the deceased.

Mummy Mask of Hor (Ptolemies, 100–50 BCE) by Artist unknownNeues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The faces of the funerary masks with their wide-open eyes were often gilded, as gold was supposed to be the skin of the gods. Age and illness are as foreign to them as ugliness and grief.

Coffin of Nespamai (Ptolemies, 323–30 BCE) by Artist unknownNeues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Burial Ritual

Following mummification, the body was laid in a coffin made from reed, wood or terracotta, or later from stone. From the time of the New Kingdom, the dead were mostly buried in coffins in human form. Sometimes several coffins were laid inside each other.

Coffin of Hat (26th Dynasty, 610–595 BCE) by Artist unknownNeues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The coffins were often elaborately decorated with religious texts and scenes

The voluminous collar covering nearly half of the coffin lid is typical for coffins from Akhmim.

On the coffin of Hat, dating from around 600 BCE, a winged Nephthys is depicted. Like her sister Isis, Nephthys was a goddess of the dead. She accompanies the dead into the afterlife and mourns for them.

The lower half of the coffin lid is also decorated with depictions of shrines containing the four sons of Horus, the guardian gods of the canopic jars.

It is completed by the kneeling goddesses Nephthys and Isis and two reclining jackals – the animal form of Anubis, the Ancient Egyptian god of the funerary rites. The jackals are carrying scourges which make a rattling noise to drive away evil spirits.

Part of a tomb wall with a funeral procession (Tutankhamun, 1550–1292 BCE) by Artist unknownNeues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The coffin with the deceased was taken to the cemetery in a procession of family members, friends, professional mourning women and priests. At the tomb a priest performed the opening of the mouth ceremony in which the deceased was magically “resurrected” by symbolically opening the eyes, nose and mouth.

Mourning sons in the ‘mourning relief’ on the coffin of Ptahemhat, called Ty, the high priest of Ptah, made during the reign of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen.

An ornamented arcade was built along the route of the procession. The sacrificial offerings which were set out were symbolically supposed to feed the dead person and the mourners. As the coffin passed, the jars were shattered by the servants.

Sacrificial chamber of Merib (Late 4th Dynasty) by Artist unknownNeues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Tombs And Sarcophagi

The deceased found their final rest in tombs which were mostly richly furnished. The building of the tomb started during its owner’s lifetime, which meant that the owner could influence its size and furnishing. The mighty pyramids in which Egyptian rulers were buried are world famous. But people of lower rank also spared no expense to secure their social standing in the afterlife with the construction of their tombs. The tombs of officials, which are now in the Egyptian Museum and represent the high point of Egyptian tomb relief art, are unequalled in their richness of motifs.

Sacrificial Chamber of Merib (4th-5th Dynasty) by Artist unknownNeues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The tomb was also a place of remembrance for family members. By saying the name of the deceased and carrying out sacrificial rituals they ensured the sojourn of their dead relative in the afterlife.

In the Old Kingdom (2707–2202 BCE) the offering chapel was inside the tomb.

The most important architectural feature here was the false door, carved from a single block of stone and marking the place where the soul of the deceased could go in and out, making contact possible between the living and the dead.

Cast, Sacrificial Chamber of Merib (4th–5th Dynasty) by Artist unknownNeues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

False doors were originally brightly painted, showing the dead person sitting at a table richly laden with sacrificial offerings. Beneath and beside the table other everyday items can be seen, as well as family members and servants.

The rich decoration of the offering chapels bears testimony to the desire for an afterlife of abundance and opulence.

Egyptian Courtyard, Neues Museum, Museum Island Berlin (1843/2009) by Friedrich August Stüler / David Chipperfield a.o.Neues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The burial chambers themselves, in which the dead were buried in heavy sarcophagi or coffins, were normally beneath the offering chapels. The form of the sarcophagi underwent many changes throughout pharaonic times.

Sarcophagi in human shape raised the form of mummies to the level of the monumental. Like mummies, they enclosed the deceased, enabling them to be transformed in them so that they could enter from them into the eternal afterlife.

Sarcophagi of dark granite or basalt weighing up to ten tonnes are covered with reliefs and inscriptions depicting the world of the afterlife.

But what was laboriously chiselled into stone here was also given to the deceased in an even more expansive form, on papyrus scrolls which were laid in the tomb.

Book of the Dead of Neferini (hieratic) (Ptolemaic period, 4th–1st century BCE) by Artist unknownNeues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Judgement Of The Dead And Beliefs About The Afterlife

From the time of the New Kingdom onwards, the books of
the dead were up to twenty metres in length and vividly depicted in texts and
images the trials the dead person had to pass on the way into the realm of the
dead. Only after passing these trials could the dead person move on into the
realm of the dead. If the outcome was negative, the deceased died a second,
final death as punishment.

A particularly opulent example is the book of the dead of Neferini from the 4th to the 1st Century BCE.

An especially great amount of room is given here to the depiction of the most important trial on the way into the afterlife, the weighing of the heart.

A verdict was reached in judgement of the way the dead person had lived by a court of 42 judges presided over by Osiris.

The dead person had to justify his or her deeds in life and swear a statement that she or he had not committed any of a list of 42 possible sins.

Then the heart was weighed against the feather of Ma’at, the goddess of truth.

The jackal-headed god Anubis watched over the whole proceedings and the outcome was written down by ibis-headed Thoth in his capacity as the scribe of the gods.

Offerings To The Dead

Once the deceased had passed all the trials, they could move on into the realm of the dead. The Egyptians imagined life there as being a mirror-image of life in this world. So they took many things with them to the grave which they would need in the afterlife.

As well as clothing and cooking utensils, jewellery, caskets and make-up pots which the deceased had acquired during their lives to take with them into eternity, musical instruments were also placed in tombs to entertain the deceased in the afterlife.

Lyre, Artist unknown, 18th Dynasty, c. 1450 BCE, From the collection of: Neues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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Cosmetic casket with two containers, Artist unknown, New Kingdom, 1550–1070 BCE, From the collection of: Neues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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Ten Uschebti-Figures (1550–320 BCE) by Artist unknownNeues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The Egyptians also expected that heavy manual labour in the fields would be waiting for them in the afterlife.

Small figurines known as ushabti were placed in tombs, inscribed with the name of the deceased and intended to stand in for the deceased when they were called upon to work in the afterlife. In their crossed arms the ushabti hold hoes and sickles, and some have sacks on their backs.

Ideally, the deceased would have 360 of these figurines, one for each day in the year with five free days.

Their intense preoccupation with life after death was deeply rooted in the mythological thoughts and actions of the Ancient Egyptians. They developed an extensive repertoire of cultural acts for this other life after death.

The Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection in Berlin is one of the largest of its kind in the world and counts itself fortunate to be able to give such a detailed insight into the story of the cult of the dead in Ancient Egypt thanks to the many objects in its collection. It’s well worth a visit!

Credits: Story

Text: Ägyptisches Museum und Paprussammlung, Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Prestel

Concept: Jutta Dette, Verena Lepper
Editing: Jutta Dette
Translation: Catherine Hales, Sephan Schmidt

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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