A fascinating article in the LA Times this week tells of a modern expression of a practice that goes right back to the dawn of human prehistory: the sacrifice or disposal of offerings for the dead. In this case, Chinese are burning paper facsimiles of iPads, iPhones, and other modern luxuries to “give” to their deceased family members.
In this modern expression of the ancient tradition, we can see clearly that the grave goods which fill many of our museums are not so much a preoccupation with death and morbidity, as with life.
I first became aware of this distinction when studying ancient Egypt as a child. Popular culture and Hollywood dwell much on mummies, skeletons, and curses of the dead when talking about Egyptian burial customs. Isn’t it macabre how they wrapped and preserved dead bodies? Yet for the Egyptians, who believed in an afterlife for those who were “true of heart,” you could take it with you. So those who could afford it were buried with jewelry, cosmetics, game boards, furniture, beds and pillows, foodstuffs, wine, cloth, all manner of toys and tools, shoes, deceased pets, even small magical statues that they could order to do work for them should they need it or someone else require it of them. These artifacts were believed to live, so to speak, in the afterlife, just as the soul lived on in the afterlife.
When I see statues, mummy portraits (above, late period), tomb paintings, and grave goods from ancient Egypt, I am always struck by how much of a celebration of life these things represent and are. In fact, they show us the life the Egyptians loved or wished to live, so, after a manner of speaking, they did achieve immortality.
Other culture’s funerary traditions have a similar purpose.
Some can be playful: you will see coins, cigarettes, spirits left on graves in some graveyards to this day. Latin American Dies de los Muertos is one of these, in which family members picnic at the family plot and leave offerings of flowers, candy, skulls, and other items not so much as gifts to be used in heaven (although some are clearly sent as consumables), but just as a way to remember the deceased.
Others are more grandiose. In powerful, imperial, martial cultures, you have staggering expenditures of wealth for burials like China’s famous terracotta army, a full-scale corps of warriors built to protect the spirit of China’s first emperor. In cases like these, a celebration of life has taken on the patina of the person’s life: a powerful person must be accompanied by powerful displays.
In ancient times, rarely, this tradition took on a more similar cast: animal or even human sacrifices were sent to the afterworld alongside royalty. So the Royal Tombs of Ur in ancient Mesopotamia included entire households of retainers, all dressed in their finest, who evidently took poison to accompany their monarch. In that case, celebration of life has gone painfully awry: the belief in the afterlife was too literal, and the life of the monarch valued over those of followers.
Thankfully, in most cultures, the burial of grave goods reflects a more compassionate outlook: it is a last chance to say goodbye to a loved one, and we send them off with their best. Even Christians may include favorite clothes or personal effects. So when next you go to a museum — where, naturally, artifacts preserved in tombs make up many a collection, since they are most likely to be preserved — consider what the grave goods say about people’s love of life, of family ties, and of their hopes for a blessed afterlife. Don’t assume grave goods reflect a culture’s preoccupation with death.