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Final Farewell: The Culture of Death and the Afterlife

Journey to the Field of Reeds: Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt

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Mummy MaskMummy Mask

Originally created only for royalty, mummy masks such as this one were later used in the burials of elite men and women. Such masks had more than one purpose. They helped preserve the deceased’s head, but they also played the important role of magically transforming the dead from mortal to immortal in the afterlife. The cartonnage technique was less expensive than masks fashioned of metals or exotic woods. The technique was similar to papier-mâché in which layers of linen were plastered together, molded and then painted. In later periods, even papyrus scrolls were used in place of the linen.

Mummy Mask
Egyptian, Late Period, ca. 600–400 B.C.E.
Cartonnage (paint, plaster, linen)
Lent by Monmouth College, Monmouth IL,
James Christie Shields Collection

Mummification in Ancient Egypt

The Egyptian belief in the afterlife required elaborate funerary customs to ensure the deceased’s successful passage into the next world. This required preserving the physical body so that the soul, or ka, might live on as well. The Egyptians preserved the deceased’s body through the process of mummification, which ensured rebirth in the afterlife.

The process took seventy days to complete. First, priests laid the deceased’s body out and ritually cut a single slit in the torso. Through this incision, they removed the viscera (lungs, stomach, small intestines, liver and gall bladder) and placed them in four canopic jars. Priests did not extract the heart because Egyptian belief held that the individual’s essence resided in the heart and needed to remain with the body. The brain, seen as less important, was removed by extraction through the nose. After removing the viscera and brain, priests washed the empty body cavity with wine (a natural disinfectant) and preserved the body with natron salt. Finally, the mummy was wrapped in cloth, which was adorned with jewelry that had a talisman function.

When the mummification process was complete, Egyptians held the funeral and buried the deceased. During the funerary rites, a priest performed the opening of the mouth ceremony. He touched the mouth of the mummy with a stick, which symbolically opened the mummy’s mouth so it could breathe and speak in the afterlife.

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