In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Funerary Rites and Practices, Greco-Roman

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies and Reference Works
  • Marking the Place of the Dead: Stelae and Mummy Labels
  • Liturgical Recitations and Knowledge for the Afterlife: The Role and Function of Funerary Papyri
  • Embalmers and Libation-Priests: The Personnel of Funerary Rituals and their Organization
  • On the Reliability of Greek and Roman Authors Reporting about Egyptian Funerary Customs

Biblical Studies Funerary Rites and Practices, Greco-Roman
Burkhard Backes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0204


A description of the typical Egyptian treatment of the body from death to interment during Ptolemaic and Roman times will not differ in its main elements from a similar account of earlier periods: The dead were mourned at home and then transported to the embalming place, normally situated on the west bank of the Nile River, where the mummification of the body and accompanying rituals were executed. From there they were taken to be buried in their tombs. The tomb could still be an individual, new building, but even for persons of higher status, collective burials in large tomb complexes of earlier periods had become the standard solution. In the Roman period, the stelae marking the burial place of a person were successively abandoned, the mummy-labels maybe taking over this function. Therefore one can often read, and maybe correctly so, that during the periods treated here the focus of funerary cult shifted from the tomb closer to the body, i.e., to the mummy in its envelope and/or coffin(s). Equipping the deceased for an eternal existence in the necropolis was an integral part of Egyptian funerary practice. This is why several paragraphs here are devoted to categories of funerary objects. The high level of diachronic and synchronic variation testifies to their important position in cultural discourse. After the burial, the tombs were regularly visited by relatives and/or professional priests, especially the so-called choachytes (Egyptian wˀḥ-mw “water-pourers”), to renew the deceased’s existence in the afterlife by offerings and liturgical recitations. The direct link between the tomb and its equipment, on the one hand, and this funerary cult, on the other, makes tomb building and decoration an integral component of Egyptian funerary practice. This overview is mainly concerned with Egyptian practice, but this includes a mutual influence with Greek elements as visible in tomb architecture and decoration. As a rule, one can say that a clear separation between Greek and Egyptian burials, the former mainly being attested in and around Alexandria, gave way to more hybrid forms from the later Ptolemaic period onward, the portrait mummies from the Fayum region being only the most prominent example. The Coptic period is considered here mainly insofar as some Coptic practices testify to the continuity of older, “pagan” traditions, especially mummification and formal mourning, of which forms have survived until this day. With very few exceptions the publications listed here are of recent date and guide the reader to previous research.

Bibliographies and Reference Works

No specialized bibliography is readily at hand for the subject of this article, but two general Egyptological bibliographies can be used. Since the Online Egyptological Bibliography demands a registration fee, Aegyptiaca, searchable by keywords, will probably be the first choice for those not regularly active in the field. The UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology is continuously growing and will gain still more importance in the near future. For readers of German, some articles in Das wissenschaftliche Bibellexikon im Internet (WiBiLex) provide easily accessible alternatives explicitly addressed to scholars and students of biblical studies. The Coptic Bibliographies on a site maintained by Macquarie University, Sydney, provide introductory lists to the main areas of Coptic studies, including further bibliographic tools.

  • Aegyptiaca: Literaturdatenbank des Instituts für Ägyptologie und Koptologie der Westfälischen Wilhelms-Universität Münster.

    Online database with more than 100.000 entries, searchable in German, English, and French. It covers all aspects of Egyptian culture, including the topics and periods in this article. Very useful thanks to keyword search.

  • Coptic Bibliographies. Sydney: Macquarie University.

    Bibliographic lists on various aspects of “Coptic” Egypt provided by the Department of Ancient History of Macquarie University, Sydney. Primarily addressed to students in the field; emphasis on publications in English.

  • Das wissenschaftliche Bibellexikon im Internet (WiBiLex). Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft.

    The section on the Old Testament includes a wide range of articles on Israel’s neighboring cultures. For Egypt, it features articles on religious conceptions and customs, sources, gods, and places, all with further reading.

  • Online Egyptological Bibliography. Oxford: Oxford University.

    By far the largest resource. It includes the three most important earlier Egyptological bibliographies. Full-text search for titles and abstracts where they exist. Keyword search available for some 50,000 entries. Individual or institutional subscription necessary.

  • UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology. Los Angeles: University of California.

    Established in 2008, this encyclopedia of ancient Egypt with articles on all aspects of the discipline that are added regularly. All articles are in English with Arabic abstracts and include suggestions for further reading.

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