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Funerary Customs

Much of our knowledge about ancient Egyptian culture comes from archaeological evidence uncovered in tombs. Objects, inscriptions, and paintings from tombs have led Egyptologists to conclude that what appeared to be a preoccupation with death was in actuality an overwhelming desire to secure and perpetuate in the afterlife the "good life" enjoyed on earth.

Over the more than three thousand years of ancient Egypt's history, traditional beliefs about the transition to eternal life persisted, with new ideas being incorporated from time to time.  Most important for full participation in the afterlife was the need for an individual's identity to be preserved. Consequently, the body had to remain intact and receive regular offerings of food and drink.

The afterlife was assured by (1) preserving the body through mummification; (2) protecting the body in a tomb in which the name of the deceased was inscribed; and (3) providing the deceased with food and drink or illustrations of it in case no one was available to make the offerings.

 To protect the spirit of the deceased, scenes and inscriptions were written on coffins and the walls of tombs. These texts included such writings as adaptations of the myth about the death of Osiris and spells to protect the deceased on his or her dangerous journey to the underworld. Figures known as shabtis functioned as servants for the deceased.

The final step in the transition to the afterlife was  the judgment by Osiris, god of the underworld, in a ritual known as the Weighing of the Heart. If a person had led a decent life, he or she would be judged worthy of eternal life. Many spells and rituals were designed to ensure a favorable judgment and were written in the papyrus or linen "Book of the Dead."

All ancient Egyptians believed in the afterlife and spent their lives preparing for it. Pharaohs built the finest tombs, collected the most elaborate funerary equipment, and were mummified in the most expensive way. Others were able to provide for their afterlives according to their earthly means. Regardless of their wealth, however, they all expected the afterlife to be an idealized version of their earthly existence.


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