Burial In The Ancient World: The Entombment and Honoring of the Dead

Ancient Egyptian Burial Practices

The way in which human beings treat their dead has changed little since the time of ancient Babylon. The burial of the dead remains an important aspect of every culture.

Burial is the act of placing the corpse of a dead person under earth, sometimes in the expectation that the soul of the individual so buried will more easily reach the after-life, and usually marking the grave with a stone or marker bearing the person’s likeness and/or name and, sometimes, an inscription. Burial of the dead has been traced back to ancient Sumeria where food and tools were interred with the dead. According to Will Durant, “…the Sumerians believed in an after-life. But like the Greeks they pictured the other world as a dark abode of miserable shadows, to which all the dead descended indiscriminately” and that the land of the dead was beneath the earth.

Burial in Babylon

This idea of the after-life existing below the feet of the living was also accepted in Babylonia where the dead “went to a dark and shadowy realm within the bowels of the earth, and none of them saw the light again”. In Babylonia the dead were “buried in vaults, a few were cremated and their remains were preserved in urns. The dead body was not embalmed, but professional mourners washed and perfumed it, clad it presentably, painted its cheeks, darkened its eyelids, put rings upon its fingers, and provided it with a change of linen”.

Egyptian Rituals

In Egypt the dead were also buried underground and, famously, the great pyramids of Egypt “were tombs, lineally descended from the most primitive of burial mounds. Apparently the Pharaoh believed, like any commoner among his people, that every living body was inhabited by a [spirit] which need not die with the breath…The pyramid, by its height, its form and its position, sought stability as a means of deathlessness”. For the more `common’ of the Egyptians, however, a grave in the earth (with as many Shabti dolls as a family could afford to provide) was the more common final resting place.

Remembrance in Greece

Ancient Greece followed suit with burials under the earth and, as previously noted by Durant, continued the tradition of the after-life existing below the ground. The ancient Greeks (perhaps following an Egyptian tradition) made sure to provide their dead with carefully carved stones to remind the living of who the deceased were and what honors were still due them and remembrance of the dead was a very important civic and religious duty. The Romans continued the Greek tradition both of burial underground, an after-life and of honoring the dead and, of course, the practice of burying the dead in the earth is still observed today in, more or less, the same way it was in ancient Babylonia.


  1. Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage, 1935
  2. Don Nardo, Living in Ancient Egypt, 2004
  3. Don Nardo, Living in Ancient Greece, 2004