Ancient Tombs

How the ancients viewed death and how they defined the Afterlife varied considerably through Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures. In some civilizations, practices and beliefs changed as their own societies declined. Treatment of the dead was a vital part of New Stone Age religious development: Mark Kishlansky refers to the discovery of human skulls at Jericho as evidence of possible early ancestor worship. [1] As views about death evolved, ancient civilizations developed their own, often elaborate, ways of bridging life with the world beyond.

Comparisons and Contrasts in Entombment

For the Etruscans, thriving in western Italy before the Roman Republic, death was a celebration and the Afterlife a continuation of the often lavish lifestyles of the wealthy. Their cities of the dead – necropoleis, were hewn out of the rocky hills. Each tomb duplicated Etruscan homes and it is from these tombs as well as the sarcophagi found therein that archaeologists have been able to present a portrait of Etruscan everyday life. Etruscan funerals featured gladiatorial “duels” to the death as part of the celebrations, a practice later inherited by the Romans that evolved into the popular public spectacles.

Like the Etruscans, Ancient Egyptians buried their wealthy dead in elaborate tombs filled with artifacts and wall paintings depicting families during everyday life. As with Etruscans, Egyptians had a positive view of the Afterlife. Both the Egyptians and the Etruscans, however, would see these positives change as their societies began to wan. The Afterlife became a place of fear, filled with evil spirits. Egyptians began to bury their deceased with the Book of the Dead, containing spells to help the departed.

Romans also buried their dead outside of city limits and every significant road or provincial city has these necropoleis. Yet Romans, in contrast, had no similar view of an Afterlife. According to Philippe Aries and Georges Duby, “No generally accepted doctrine taught that there is anything after death other than a cadaver.” [2] Romans, however, prolifically carved elaborate sarcophagi illustrating scenes from everyday life. Referring to Roman mausoleums and grave plaques, Lionel Casson comments that these markers “form one of the most fruitful sources of information we have about the Roman world.” [3]

Preparing and Remembering the Dead

It is well known that Ancient Egyptians took seventy days to prepare a pharaoh for the burial ceremony, although such elaborate preparations were not provided for the average Egyptian. Every ancient civilization, however, had methods of preparation, often designed to stop the rapid decomposition of the body. The very term “sarcophagus” comes from a Greek term referring to “flesh eating.” Heather Pringle writes that in Babylon, the important dead were often immersed in honey. [4] In most of the Ancient Near East, preparation and burial was swift.

Taken from the home within hours after death (often to avoid ill fortunes tied to the supernatural), the dead were placed in cities beyond the living, frequently with buried gifts although the purpose was not often tied to an Afterlife. Romans celebrated a “Feast of the Dead” once a year between February 13-21st. Offerings were left at graves and the dead were remembered. In Mycenaean Greece as well as Minoan Crete, early dug graves and later “chamber tombs” (tholoi) revealed elaborate burial gifts including swords.

The celebratory nature in Roman and Greek funerals may be evidenced by images of Bacchus on sarcophagi. The carefree god of wine and pleasure may have reinforced the notion that, for Romans, death was eternal sleep, and that “everything continues after everything has ceased.” A modern proverb illustrating this holds that “life is short and the grave is long.”

It is easy to see how ancient practices, later coupled with Christian ideals, shaped the modern tradition of death and the Afterlife. The combined traditions of thousands of years left an imprint that continues to define contemporary notions of life and death.


[1] Mark Kishlansky and others, Civilization in the West 5th Ed. Vol. 1, (Longman, 2003) p 9.

[2] Philippe Aries and Georges Duby, General Editors, A History of Private Life From Pagan Rome to Byzantium (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987) p 219ff.

[3] Lionel Casson, Everyday Life in Ancient Rome (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998) p 32.

[4] Heather Pringle, The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead (Hyperion, 2001) p 40.