Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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Eagle Coffin
Eagle Coffin
Coffin of Henettawy
Coffin of Henettawy

What do funerary arts reveal about cultural beliefs and values?

The way a society or community treats the bodies of its dead reveals a great deal about its hopes and fears, values and beliefs. Coffins, in particular, can tell us a lot about not only the cultures that produce them, but also the individuals who are placed in them. They might, for instance, offer clues regarding the religious beliefs, class status, or worldview of the deceased. During the Third Intermediate Period in Egypt, those who could afford to do so were mummified and placed in elaborate human-shaped coffins decorated with references to material wealth, protective symbols, and inscriptions. In modern-day Ghana, it is considered a family obligation to send the deceased off in style. Among the Ga people, this sometimes means commissioning a figurative coffin in the form of an animal, foodstuff, or prestige item.

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Questions to Consider

  • What might coffins like these tell us about the lives led by the deceased? What do they suggest about the fate the deceased expects to meet after death?
  • Within their funerary context, coffins are not intended to remain visible to the living for long. Coffins like the Ga eagle are buried in the earth, while the coffin set of Henettawy was sealed up within a tomb. Why do you think people would put so much time and so many resources into creating visually elaborate coffins that will go largely unseen?
  • Is there anything equivalent to these two coffins in the funerary arts of your own culture or community? If so, what is it and how is it similar? If not, why do you think that might be? What does it suggest about the beliefs and values of the society in which you live?

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