The Definition of Death in Ancient Egypt

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland P.h.D., Colgate University

Death in ancient Egypt was the key to a better life. If the dead could pass the judgment and enter the realm of the dead, their afterlife began. Theoretically, the dead person’s body and soul would reunite and come back to life, with all their buried wealth and belongings. Even though there was some work to do in the other realm as well, they could send their shabtis off to do so.

Painting of various Egyptian workers from a tomb in Thebes, Egypt.
Death in ancient Egypt was the passage to the underworld, where the dead would continue to live. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Ancient Egyptians were no exception to the other human societies who pondered what happened after death. There is even some evidence that the race before humans, the Neanderthals, believed in the afterlife. Hence, the belief can date back to 300,000 and 100,000 years ago. Death in ancient Egypt was defined as a passage to the realm of the dead, where everything inside the person’s tomb came back to life, similar to the life they had before death.

Life in Ancient Egypt

Books on ancient Egypt claim that Egyptians adored life, loved fun, and were addicted to pleasures. Even though there is not enough historical evidence to prove that they were as fun-loving as claimed, they really enjoyed life.

The Egyptians living somewhere between 2,000 to 5,000 years ago were strongly committed to life. Hence, the afterlife they built in their beliefs preserved life itself, in a different environment. Even those who lived a poor life could live a wealthier life after death if they were prepared well.

Learn more about being Egyptian.

How was Life after Death in Ancient Egypt?

Ancient Egyptians believed that the body and the soul would reunite and come back to life. After being resurrected, they would use everything in their tomb to make the afterlife as comfortable as possible. Everything that happened in life would also happen after death: hunting, fishing, strutting around, partying, listening to music, having sex, eating, and, of course, drinking and getting drunk. However, there would be no sickness in the new realm.

A pharaoh's tomb, with all the necessary things required after death.
All the necessities of life were buried with the dead, as the dead started another physical life after death. (Image: Yezepchyk Oleksandr/Shutterstock)

Shabtis: Tricks of Afterlife!

The most common object found in Egyptian tombs was a shabti. Shabtis were miniature figures, usually only two to three inches high, buried with the person in a jar. They resembled Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead. When it came to the underworld work, a person with shabtis could send them to do the work and somehow ‘replace’ them in the hard part of the afterlife. If the dead person were wealthy enough, they would get 365 shabtis in their tomb instead of one: one for every day of the year.

Everything that was buried with the dead had a role as the shabtis did. Why did the Egyptians, among all the other ancient nations, place so much time, investment, and effort on the dead?

View of Egyptian Ushabtis figures. Ushabti (shabti or shawabti) is a funerary figurine that was used in ancient Egypt.
Shabtis were supposed to do the work in the afterlife, so that the dead do not work themselves. (Image: Gokhan Dogan/Shutterstock)

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Egyptian Attempts to Preserve the Body

Around 3500 B.C., Egyptians were conducting experiments on dead bodies at Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt, to find out how the body can be preserved after death, they used resins and linen wrappings to do so. Evidence suggests that these experiments started after Egyptians found bodies that were naturally preserved in hot sand.

A famous example of such natural mummies is ‘Ginger’ – a man who had died around 3400 B.C. but whose body was preserved in sand. These dead bodies sparked the idea that if the body can be preserved after death, then why can they not preserve the soul?

The Reunification of Body and Soul

In order for the soul to come back to life, the body had to be well-preserved. When the soul came back to the physical body, it would need all the necessities of life. Thus, plates, bowls, dishes, a string of beads, knives, shabtis, and other necessities were buried in the grave. From around 2500 B.C., Egyptians began mummification, which turned into a common way of preserving the body.

Death in ancient Egypt was not a happy event for those who remained, but it could be a happy start for the dead, provided that they got all they needed in the afterlife.

Learn more about belonging to an Egyptian family.

Common Questions about Death in Ancient Egypt

Q: What did the ancient Egyptians believe about death?

Death in ancient Egypt was the doorway, but not necessarily the key to the afterlife and the underworld. The dead had to pass a judgment whose positive result was the key. They believed the body comes back to life in its physical form and needs all the belongings and organs.

Q: Where do Egyptians go when they die?

Ancient Egyptians believed they would be transferred to a different world through death. Death in ancient Egypt was the end of worldly life and the beginning of the same life in physical form, under the ground.

Q: What did the pharaohs take to the afterlife?

Every Egyptian took as much wealth and as many ‘servants’ as possible to the afterlife. The servants were in the form of very small statues that would come to life with the dead person and do the work for them. The pharaohs were no exception to death in ancient Egypt, but their tombs were filled with everything that would make the afterlife even more glorious.

Q: What happens in the afterlife?

The ancient Egyptians believed that afterlife begins after the death in this world. The body and its organs, the wealth, the shabtis, the belongings, and even the paintings in the tomb come to life after the dead person does, to make the afterlife a comfortable experience. The afterlife is almost exactly like life itself, even with an underworld Nile in the other realm.

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Isis and Osiris: Death and Rebirth in Ancient Egypt
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