The tale is famous. After years of searching in the Valley of the Kings, Howard Carter literally struck gold in 1922. Worried that he would run out of financial backing, he pressed one more time. Almost by accident, his team found an opening to a tomb. When Carter finally got inside the tomb of Tutankhamun, he told witnesses what he saw: “Wonderful things.” But that wasn’t the end of the story.
In a practice that was performed all over Egypt even into the present day, Carter’s group removed all the treasures. They listed each item carefully and prepared them for relocation out of the country. If we don’t feel a little twinge of guilt every time we visit a museum and see an elaborate mummiform coffin, perhaps we ought to ask ourselves why.
We have an interest in the burial practices of the ancient Egyptians. It’s real, tangible evidence of people living many thousands of years ago. But, in our keenness to understand these ancient civilizations, we run the risk of overlooking their humanity. We put ourselves in the position of polluting and pillaging the sacred burial ground.
How can we reconcile our hunger for information with respect for the people whose bodies are buried in the ground we dig? There’s a new dynamic, which places cremation and the transient nature of cremated remains at the forefront. Perhaps it gives us an opportunity to change the way we conceive of the sacred space held by the dead, guarded by the living.
How the Ancients Prepared for Burial
There’s a reason that the ancient Egyptians stuffed the tombs of the wealthy with gold, food and other treasures. They believed they could take it all with them. Scholars claim that the Egyptians thought that the afterlife would be much like life on Earth, only better. Much of what we know about their burial practices relates to tombs from about 3,000 years ago. But the Egyptian belief in the afterlife was already ancient then.
Going back as far as 4,500 BCE, people were buried in the ground. Those who prepared the dead placed items they thought the deceased would need, like food and tools. Their bodies were curved into the fetal position and placed facing west. Following the setting sun served as a path to the next life.
A Guide to the Afterlife
More information about burial rites emerged with the use of funerary texts. Archaeologists were able to find these works on the insides of pyramids, built around 2,500 BCE. In the texts, the living gave guidance on what would happen to the dead. The deceased wished to become like the sun god, who perished each night but found a new life. They also desired to be like Osiris, the mythical first pharaoh of Egypt. Osiris was reanimated before he could become ruler of the next world. Eventually, these funeral texts would be known as the “Book of the Dead.” But more accurately translated, the ancients might have read it as the “Book of Emerging Forth into the Light.”
Resurrection for the Whole
The burial practices changed significantly over ancient Egypt’s thousands of years of civilization. But the need to preserve the body remained constant. Keeping the person as whole as possible allowed them to join the next world but retire to their bodies each night. The dry heat of Egypt presented an ideal climate for preserving artifacts. That’s why we have been able to study these civilizations for so long.
The rights of burial were granted across the board, as people believed that an improperly placed body might come back to haunt them. The level of embalming the deceased received depended on how much their family paid. The poorest people could afford no embalming and were only wrapped in linens. The embalming process involved the removal of the brain and organs, put in pots laid inside the grave.
Embalmers then used natron, a salt substance, to dissolve the fat and tissues of the body. Embalming by salt has a few similarities to the recent practice of alkaline hydrolysis. This is a form of cremation in which the body is submerged in a base liquid to eliminate the soft tissues and skin, leaving only bone behind.
When the Dead Are No Longer Human
As we walk through a modern cemetery, we might wonder how anyone could see rows of tombstones as a goldmine of treasure, ripe for the plucking. A towering columbarium offers an efficient place to store the cremated remains of the dead. But thousands of years from now, it’s hard to imagine what people will think. Will the sacred burial spaces of today become only a source of academic interest in the years of the future?
The modern peoples of ancient civilizations in Egypt, Italy, Greece, Mexico, China and more struggle to find a balance. For centuries, the priceless artifacts of these populations were considered by many to be “first come, first serve.” Archaeologists like Howard Carter were praised for their diligence in securing goods for the world to see. Many now conceive of it as grave robbing. These days, it is not at all uncommon to walk through a museum of ancient history and view the bodies of the long dead. It is a controversy that many indigenous people fight to change.
Finding a New Sacred Ground
In many parts of the modern world, traditional burial is going the way of the ancient Egyptians. The increasing world population means that burying the dead in the ground simply isn’t sustainable. So, we watch cremation claim a position of prominence on the world stage. Advocates sometimes say that a wonderful part of cremation is that people can find a final rest almost anywhere. It’s time we stopped to think about what that means for us, and for our concept of the burial space.
Burial grounds are sacred. For our spiritual and religious beliefs, we hold them so, and protect the sanctity of the bodies interred. But in a world where cemeteries fade further into the past, we face a unique challenge. We scatter the remains of loved ones on the sea, on the ground, in the sand. We place them in gardens with seeds to sprout a new life. Families imagine those they lost are finding their way into the light. And while the ashes may be almost invisible after a short time, the memory is always with us. Can we find a way to memorialize an open land where nearly every inch contains a sacred life? What would such a world look like?