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Death in Ancient Civilisations

Hail to thee, O my father Osiris, I have come and I have embalmed this my flesh so that my body may not decay.

Inscription on one of the linen wrappings of the Egyptian mummy of Thothmes II, 1493-1479 B.C.


Ancient Egypt, with its mummies and vast pyramids seems uniquely characterised by objects associated with death. These monuments, inscriptions, and the opulent artifacts found around the bodies within them betray a complex belief in the afterlife. After death, Ancient Egyptians believed that the ‘Ka,’ an entity closely associated with the physical body was able to eat, drink and smell, and essentially enjoy the afterlife.

The soul, or ‘Ba’ could not survive without the body, and what’s more, had to be able to recognize its body to be able to return to it. Thus the body’s preservation was essential in order for a person both to reach the afterlife, and to be able to enjoy it. To this end early Egyptians would leave their dead in the desert to be preserved in the dry surroundings, but increasingly mummification became common and remained so for three millennia.


The mummification process involved ritually washing the corpse and then removing any organs that might contribute to the rotting process. Therefore the liver, stomach, lungs and intestines were all removed and placed in ‘canopic’ jars to be interred along with the body. The brain, an organ not believed to be of much use in the afterlife was removed through the nostrils, and often disposed of.

The heart would be left in situ, or placed near the throat, due to the belief that the heart was the source of a person’s life force and that any damage to it would result in a ‘second death.’ After this, the body would be dried out and padded so that it retained its lifelike proportions. It would be preserved with natron or bitumen. Indeed the term ‘mummy’ is thought to be from the Arabic name for bitumen or the embalmed corpse ‘mumiya’.

Before the final process of wrapping the body and entombing it, a priest, wearing the mask of the Jackal-headed god Anubis (who oversaw the judging of the soul in the afterlife) would perform the last rites. This involved a ceremonial opening of the mouth to grant the dead the power to speak and eat in the next life. The body would then be wrapped in hundreds of yards of line bandages and decorated, often with the person’s face painted over the carefully placed bandages. The whole process is thought to have taken up to 70 days. These mummies would be put in a series of coffins, each inscribed inside and out with magical texts and symbols to facilitate the passage to the afterlife.

Ancient Mesopotamia

The Mesopotamians, a civilisation existing in and around modern day Iraq around the same time as the time of Pharaohs of Egypt had a very different view of death. For them, death was something to be feared. In the Mesopotamian tradition, humans were created from clay mixed with the blood of a sacrificed god. Thus, being partly immortal, the spirit did not die after death but lingered on to suffer a dismal afterlife. While retaining all the needs and emotions of the living, after death the soul would live a dark and subterranean existence eating only dust and clay in a place deprived of drinkable water. The only respite from this existence was the food and offerings of their descendants. This meant that the confiscation of an enemy’s body from the care of the family was a terrible punishment.

The dead were largely feared in Ancient Mesopotamia. It was thought that distressed, murdered and evil spirits could escape the land of the death to cause havoc among the living through entering the bodies of the living through their ears. Likewise, the dead could rise up and torment the living if not given a proper burial, so even the bodies of enemies were buried in a manner such as to prevent this from happening. Most were buried in cemeteries, but the bodies of babies have been found under the floors of houses, often curiously buried in cooking pots.

Due to the inevitability of the prospect of a grim afterlife, whether you were good or bad, very few provisions were made for the afterlife itself. Ancient Mesopotamian literature writes of the goddess Ishtar who, in passing through the gates to the underworld gradually had to give up all her possessions before she could meet with Ereshkigal, the queen of the underworld. However grave goods were still common.

These often took the form of pots for food and water, and indeed skeletons from around 2900B.C. have commonly been found with their hands held to their mouths cupping a small bowl. Other grave goods are thought to be for use on the way to the afterlife, as gifts to the gods, or in the cases of high-ranking individuals, as displays of personal wealth.

Ancient Greece and Rome

The treatments of death in Ancient Greece and Rome were rather similar, largely due to the extensive borrowing of Greek culture by early Romans who interpreted their own gods through existing Greek mythology. This meant that their conceptions of the afterlife shared many elements. Both believed in a similar god of the underworld, Hades in Greek and Pluto in Roman, who ruled over the underworld with his wife Persephone or Proserpina.

After death, souls would give an account of their lives to three judges and be consigned either to the Fields of Asphodel, or the Pit of Tartarus. In some literature, if a soul had been exceptionally good it might go to Elysium, or the Isles of the Blessed, a place usually reserved for heroes and the gods. En-route to Hades, one had to be ferried across the infernal River Styx by the demonic boatman Charon. A coin was often placed in the mouth of the body as his payment, with some believing that the greater the value of the offering the smoother the passage to Hades. Some souls were even provided with honey cakes to give to the demonic three-headed dog Cerberus that guarded the gates of the underworld.

A proper burial was important to both the Greeks and the Romans, who believed that the dead could linger as ghosts if the living failed to carry out the appropriate funeral rites. In Greece, immortality could only be attained through remembrance by the living. To this end monumental earth mounds, rectangular tombs, and elaborate marble stelai and statues were erected. The Romans took death equally seriously, some having their tombs constructed in their lifetime to ensure a proper send off.

Though most people were buried in early Rome, in later centuries cremation became popular, with urns buried under grand commemorative monuments. Despite the increasing popularity of cremation, Romans held onto the curious practice of os resectum in which a severed finger joint was buried where the rest of the body had been cremated. It has been suggested that this was to purify the family of the deceased while mourning was taking place, or could be seen as a symbolic burial after cremation.

For both the Greeks and the Romans attention to the dead would continue well past the funeral. The Greeks believed that the dead were capable of malevolent action if food offerings were not made. The Romans continued this practice, sometimes going as far as to incorporate ‘feeding tubes’ into the grave to facilitate the practice of giving food and wine to the dead.

Ancient China

In ancient China it was believed that death was just a prolongation of life. Instead of believing in individual salvation per se, the ancient Chinese believed that the dead would continue in the spirit life much as they had done in this life. Thus provisions were made for those that had died for use in the afterlife.

In noble and royal funerals these tombs and grave goods could rival those used by the living. In some royal Shang Dynasty (1600B.C. – 1046 B.C.) tombs a practice emerged of taking servants and concubines to the grave with them, and what’s more, the hundreds of skeletons uncovered have indicated that these sacrifices may have been interred alive. However as time passed human sacrifice stopped. By the Han dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.), pottery figures were increasingly used instead. However this did not make these graves any less impressive: Liu Sheng’s tomb in Mangheng was designed like an actual house, complete with windows, stables, storerooms, cookbooks and a bathroom, while the discovery of the ‘Terracotta Warriors’ in 1974 uncovered a massive burial complex, complete with 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, acrobats, strongmen and officials.

This tradition would only get more popular. By the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.) fairly cheap grave goods could be mass produced, giving the less well off the chance for a sumptuous afterlife.

In addition to this, it was believed that children had obligations to their ancestors for the sacrifice they had undertaken in having children and that as in life these duties continued even after death. Spirits in ancient China had the power to influence people’s lives on earth and that if they were not cared for by the living they might return, causing untold mischief. Thus an ancestor cult emerged, with people making offerings and observing ceremonies for their line of descendants.

Even the dead were buried with sets of bronze vessels, thought to be so that they could continue making offerings to their own ancestors. This developed further with Confucian influence, which instigated ‘spirit tablets’ to be placed in the family shrine and revered, with offerings to remoter ancestors being made at longer intervals than to those who had just died.

Did you know?

Though the Ancient Mesopotamians usually buried their dead in graveyards, it was customary to bury babies under the floors of your home, often in cooking pots.