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Millward, E.

(2013) Mourning of the Deceased: An Overview of Current Research into the

Gestures and Attitudes of Grief in Ancient Egypt
Rosetta 12.5: 43-50.

Rosetta 12.5.

Mourning for the Deceased: An Overview of Current Research into
the Gestures and Attitudes of Grief in Ancient Egypt

Emily Millward
PhD Candidate, 2
Year (full-time)
University of Birmingham, College of Arts and Law

The presence of mourners in ancient Egypt has certainly been attested by previous
although very briefly and with no real interpretation of the evidence that
they present. Werbroucks 1938 work does focus solely on the gestures adopted by
ancient Egyptian mourners, however, this is now quite outdated and again offers little
interpretation. The lack of analysis is quite surprising especially when we consider
the wide range of evidence available. This study, which forms my PhD thesis,
therefore intends to clarify what gestures and attitudes were adopted by ancient
Egyptian mourners, but will also provide an examination of why particular gestures
were used and will detail any deviation from the typical gestures of mourning that
appeared overtime.

Setting the Scene: the Funeral Procession
The funeral procession was important element of Egyptian funerary culture and
included a formulaic series of episodes. The family and friends would gather at the
home of the deceased before the body was transported to the embalmers workshop.
Once the embalming process (which took 70 days) was complete the funeral
entourage gathered once again to take the deceased to their pre-prepared tomb.
Depending on the location of the tomb, this episode could involve a voyage across
the Nile on funeral barges, this is particularly the case during the New Kingdom
when many kings, queens and member of the elite class were buried on the west
bank at Thebes. Once the funeral entourage had reached the tomb the deceased
would be removed from their sarcophagus one last time whilst the final funerary rites,

For brief discussions on mourners in ancient Egypt see, Bleeker 1958: 1-17, Dodson and Ikram
2005: 123, Garstang 1907: 13 and 101-102, Hodel-Hoenes 2000: 52-54, Meskell 2002:181-193, Milde
1994: 18, McDermott 2006:113-114, Robins 1993: 164, Szpakowska 2008:184, Taylor 2001: 187-189,
Tyldesley 1994: 132.
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including the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony, were performed. The funerary items
that were carried by some members of the entourage were placed inside the tomb
with the deceased and the entrance would then be sealed.

Following the establishment of the funeral procession attention was focused on the
gestures themselves. This study began by reading a short passage from Herodotus
Histories, which provided an initial insight into the possible gestures that were
considered typical for Egyptian mourners to adopt during a funeral. Herodotus
states that:

When a man of some standing departs from his house all womenfolk of the
household smear mud on their heads or even their faces. Then they leave the
corpse lying in the house while they and all their female relatives wander here
and there in the city beating their breast, with their clothing loosened and their
breasts exposed. Elsewhere, the men are also beating their breasts, and they
too have their clothing loosened. After this phase of mourning, they take the
corpse to be mummified.

Questions may arise as to how much of Egypt Herodotus travelled
and whom his
sources of information were.
However, this passage did help with the recognition of
gestures of grief when the images of the funeral procession were analysed in detail.
Before this analysis began a list of all possible sources of mourning was complied.
This ranges from depictions on tomb walls and vignettes from the ancient Egyptian
Book of the Dead, to amulets and a piece of rare textual evidence. Once completed,
each source on this list was carefully studied to understand what gestures it
displayed mourners adopting. When turning to look at the visual evidence itself it is
unfortunate that no complete depiction of the funeral procession from beginning to

For further details on ancient Egyptian funeral processions see Assmann 2001: 300; Hays 2010: 1-
14; Riggs 2010: 1-7.
Herodotus 2.85, translation Waterfield 2008.
For a perspective on Herodotus travels to Egypt see, Lloyd 2007: 226.
It is clear that Herodotus did visit Egypt, but it is possible that he remained in the north of the country.
We cannot also be certain of where Herodotus information originated and if he did indeed speak to
Egyptian priests as he claims, see Herodotus 2: 54 and 2: 100, translation Waterfield 2008, how
forthcoming they would have been with their information.
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end appears in the same source. The only Old Kingdom scene,
which illustrates the
funeral procession, suggests that depictions of the transportation to the embalming
workshop and actions involving this process were favoured during this time, whilst
the later episodes of the funeral are not shown at all. In contrast during the later New
Kingdom, there are no depictions of the journey to the embalming workshop,
although the subsequent stages are shown in great detail.
There is enough
evidence however, to fully establish what gestures were more typical and those that
were more spontaneous when collaborating sources from different chronological

Establishing the Gestures of Mourning
This study has so far established that throughout the funeral procession mourners
were present to grieve for the loss of their loved one and they did so by adopting a
series of gestures. From the wide range of evidence studied two gestures can be
recognised as typical due to the frequency with which they appear; these are the
raising of arms upwards and the exposure of breasts. All of the studied sources
depict 440 mourners with their arms raised and 170 (obviously all female) exposing
their breasts. This suggests that these two actions were the typical gestures of
mourning due to their frequency and the fact that they do not only appear in tomb
depictions. Other mediums show these gestures including an Eleventh Dynasty
vessel from Dendera
and a 19
Dynasty vignette from the Book of the Dead.
spontaneous gestures include pouring dust or dirt onto the face, possibly to induce
tears- which are also sometimes shown on mourners cheeks (49 mourners)- mouths
open in wailing (20 mourners), and fainting or gripping fellow mourners for support
(11 mourners).
These latter gestures tend to only appear within the context of tomb
decoration and are much less frequently adopted, possibly suggesting that they
show mourners displaying more spontaneous gestures of grief.

Next Steps

Decorated in the tomb of Pepiankh at Meir, see Blackman 1924: pl.lxii.
Particularly in TT50, the tomb of Neferhotep, see Davies 1973: pl.xxi-xxiv.
Petrie Museum UC16126.
Book of the Dead of Hunefer, British Museum 9901,5.
TT181, the tomb of Nebamun and Ipuky in particular shows these atypical gestures of mourning,
see slide 3401, die Ramesside Archiv in der gyptologie Institut an der Universitt Heidelberg and
Davies 1925: pl.xxii.
Rosetta 12.5.

Now that the gestures of mourning have been established there will be an
examination that has not been completed before, that is assessing all of these
gestures and ascertaining the extent to which they show mourners genuine emotion
over a theatrical performance. Assmann first suggested that within depictions of
mourning authentic grief was shown directly alongside theatrical performance.

However, he did not state whether one mourner adopts them or whether multiple
mourners within the same scene adopt them. At no point will this study suggest that
the mourners adopting the more typical gestures of grief are themselves emotionless,
but rather that it is the gestures that lack emotion whilst the motivation behind
adopting them remains passionately driven. During the funeral procession mourners
would have felt a great need of duty to grieve for the deceased as the event was not
only a means to transport the embalmed body and its grave goods to the tomb, but it
also acted a bridge between the world of the living and the land of the dead.
funeral was well-structured to ensure a good send off for the deceased and as a
result mourners were compelled to adopt gestures of grief, not only out of an
emotional attachment to the deceased, but also by the long held ideologies of their
culture. The deceased had to be mourned and mourned for correctly otherwise they
would not reach the afterlife successfully and henceforth die a second death, which
was a terrible fate for any ancient Egyptian.

Initial Conclusions
At this point it is clear that the raising of arms upwards and the exposure of breasts
were the typical gestures of mourning. Although mourners who adopt these
gestures are often in rigid poses with a lack of the dramatic, they were still motivated
to act in such a way for love of the deceased. On the other hand, the emotions of
other mourners are more prominent as they are shown throwing themselves on the
ground, opening their mouths to let out tormented wailing, or fainting.
But does this
mean the latter are any more emotional than the former? To what extent can a
conclusion to this argument be reached? These are the questions that will now be
considered. Of course there are many factors to consider when looking at these
scenes, such as when they were produced, for whom they were produced and the

Assmann 2001: 310.
El-Shahawy 2005: 13.
McDermott 2005: 19.
Particularly in the royal tomb at Amarna, see Martin 1989: 38.
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amount of artistic license present. However, the initial research into this study has
certainly provided some insightful interpretations, which will be built upon further over
the next year.

Rosetta 12.5.


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