Ancient Mortuary Practices

In class this week, all of this mortuary talk has got me thinking how incredibly different our culture today thinks of death compared to how the ancient Egyptians viewed it.  I love my family but I would never want to bury them under the floors of my house.  This mortuary practice I had heard about.  The one that I found crazy was the fact that Egyptians would do with their dead family member’s heads.  I cannot imagine cutting off the top of a relative’s head, removing the cranium, and then pouring plaster in to make a mold.  The creepiest thing is putting shell in the eye sockets.  I think that could be used in the next horror movie.  But it was perfectly normal to have these plaster heads of your deceased family members in the household proper during this time.  Now you would get put in jail.

In 1971 archeologist Louis Binford looked at the mortuary practices of 40 different societies.  He believed that the more lavish the gravesite, the higher the status was of the person buried there.  Later his post-processual colleagues pointed out that this was not true for every culture.  Many cultures believed that you can take things into the afterlife with you but there are many others that don’t believe in material objects after you pass on.

As with all cultures they grow and change overtime.  Absorbing different practices from other cultures change as cultures would collide.  During the same time upper and lower Egypt were doing different mortuary practices.  From burring them under your house or burying them a mile away from the village, they all had their own beliefs.  1000 years from now, when people are studying our culture, they will probably think how we burry and remember our loved ones is weird also.

3 thoughts on “Ancient Mortuary Practices

  1. I agree that the different mortuary practices across time and around the world are fascinating and even hard to understand for an outsider. I think it is amazing to consider how a culture’s perception of death is so intertwined with the realities of their lives. Burying someone beneath the floor, even someone greatly loved, is somewhat disturbing to us today because of our different view of things.

    The plaster casts of skulls make an odd sort of sense to me, though. If they want to remember the family members that have passed away, this might be the best way to remember their faces. Now, we have our dead sometimes preserved and put on display for “the viewing.” It’s that last time for family and friends to look upon a loved one’s face even though it’s been arranged just so and prepared by a stranger. It’s weird when you think about it too much, but it’s an accepted part of the funeral process.

    Today, we have the technology to have photographs of people even after they die. Even when clear memories fade of someone’s appearance, photos can help us fill in the blanks and remember special moments. Maybe a plaster cast is how the people in Predynastic Lower Egypt kept memories alive and paid homage to ancestors and loved ones. It seems like creative methods to honor those who are gone.

  2. Examining mortuary practices throughout different cultures and different time periods is a challenge that bioarchaeologists and archaeologists often face. It is easy to fall into the trap, as Binford did, of describing status and comparing different cultures with too broad a scope.

    His general premise that the more complex a mortuary practice is the higher status that individual was in life. However, there are always exceptions to the rule and this concept should be applied at the population level. It is important to remember the mortuary practice is a process of which we can only see one part. We know nothing about the celebration and/or mourning that would surround the burial and are generally unable to ascertain the level of complexity which may be have been exhibited. In addition, it is a further challenge to try to examine whether it was achieved or ascribed status.

    As for the differences in modern burial techniques/location of graves, I agree it is not a familiar concept to modern Americans to bury their family in the floor of the house or to create plaster a face from the skull of their loved one. However, I think the current practice of embalming the body is incredibly bizarre as well.
    Although these two mortuary practices are completely different and are centuries apart, they both boil down to the same two important concepts – preparation for afterlife and the commemoration of lost loved ones.

  3. You make a very good point with your discussion of modern American practices regarding death. While some of the Egyptian methods of honoring the dead, including the burial of family members underneath the household, may seem strange, it is important to remember that cultural influences almost every aspect of an individual’s daily life. As pointed out in the previous comment, Americans often have viewings where we go and visit our dead. When we break a funeral down into discrete steps it too seems very strange. When a person dies, we immediately get them out of our home. Someone we loved and cherished is almost automatically whisked away by a complete stranger, perhaps a funeral director or a medical examiner. Then our loved one may undergo an autopsy where they are cut open and their organs are removed and inspected. The next step in the process is for them to be embalmed and injected with chemicals to preserve their “life-like” appearance and perhaps they have makeup applied and are dressed in formal clothing. Next, we all gather around and lament the fact they are gone, yet rarely take the time to honor the life they lived. Finally, we place them in a box and throw them in the ground where we may go to visit on a rare occasion. Viewed from this perspective, I think it is incredibly interesting to consider how our practices and feelings regarding death appear to outsiders.

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