Every individual experiences the act of death, and most persons experience the death of someone they know of. Whether family, kin, or someone infamous, the living deal with the process of dying. Anthropology seeks to understand the universal process of death ritual and how different cultures deal with death differently. An anthropologist can extract social values of a given culture, past or present, from how death ceremony is practiced. Such values could be regarding political hierarchy or an individual’s status in a society, and about a culture’s spiritual or religious faith. By exploring death ceremony in ancient Egypt, contemporary Hindu death practice in India, and current North American funerary rites, it can be illustrated that anthropology is conducive for providing clarity to a culture’s social division of strata and spiritual beliefs by analyzing death ritual. Universally, these rituals are ultimately designed for the living, who almost collectively seek longevity of life and immortality of being.
Ancient Egypt is well-known for its ritual and care revolving around the process of death and the movement from physical being into the afterlife. Preparations for death were planned substantially far in advance (Murnane in Obayashi, 1992, p. 35). From this an anthropologist could gather that death and the process of dying were valued and of high importance to ancient Egyptians. Such a claim can be made due to the astronomical amount of time and energy ancient Egyptians spent processing bodies via mummification as well as the mass burial chambers built for the deceased. Sarcophagi and burial masks were also made to honour and aid the dead to transcend into the afterlife. Anthropologists (often archaeologists) can verify which citizens were deemed as important and wealthy and which were not, often by just examining the burial elements of a given tomb. Poorer citizens were not buried with a coffin and outer sarcophagi where as wealthier citizens were. Citizens of higher strata were also buried with precious stones and gold. Thus, the socioeconomic structures of specific groups can be analyzed and broken down as to who was a peasant and who was deemed of higher social strata by examining the way ancient Egyptians practiced burial.
Regardless of social strata, death and the afterlife were almost always valued by the living in ancient Egypt. The afterlife was birthed and designed for great societal rulers but eventually trickled down and was adopted by other levels of society (Murnane in Obayashi, 1992, p. 42). Death was interpreted as “new life in another state” by ancient Egypt, and the ultimate goal of immortality could be attained if specific burial arrangements were made for the dead. This was to avoid a final death of the soul known as the “second death,” and measures such as burial with food, drink, and personal possessions, were taken to aid the soul on its journey into immortality (Murnane in Obayashi, 1992, p. 36).