Here in America and in most of Canada, we have funeral traditions that have stood the test of time for decades, even centuries.
But our traditions are vastly different from those in other countries and cultures.
This article looks at ancient Mesopotamian funeral traditions and is part of a series that highlights how different cultures care for their dead. Other parts of the series are about Muslim funeral traditions and Torajan funeral traditions, among others.
Ancient Mesopotamia — meaning between two rivers — was a community that lived between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in West Asia. The Mesopotamian people had a polytheistic religion, meaning that they believed in multiple gods. They didn’t believe that physical death was the end of life.
Mesopotamian Afterlife Beliefs
Researchers studied their afterlife beliefs, but it’s difficult to know for sure. They believe that the Mesopotamian people viewed the afterlife as a shadowy version of Earth located underground. The underworld was a dark place that the souls couldn’t leave, and they went through judgment and placement within it. However, they believed they could reunite with their deceased loved ones’ souls in the underworld.
Mesopotamian Funeral Traditions
Not a lot is known about Mesopotamian funeral traditions, but we know the importance of proper burials. They believed the deceased could return as a ghost if they didn’t receive a proper burial. The ghosts could possess people, haunt their dreams, bring bad luck, or bring bad health.
For the burial, they buried the deceased in graves or tombs depending on their social status. Those of royalty, such as a king or queen, received more extravagant tomb burials and offerings. They also believe that they sacrificed their servants, family, and musicians to bury with them. The ancient Egyptians expanded more on these tomb burial practices.
Those who were not royal were buried under their home with some of their possessions. They interred them with food, drinks, tools, and other offerings. Often, they wrapped the deceased in mats or carpets. For deceased children, they often placed them in large jars in their family’s chapel. They also sometimes buried the deceased in more traditional cemeteries marked with stones carved with their names.
Cremation was not common because there wasn’t a lot of wood. They also believed the deceased should be buried so their souls were closer to the underworld. If cremated, they believed their soul would go to the sky with the gods, which they didn’t think they belonged or would be happy.
It wasn’t so much that they believe the soul didn’t belong in the sky with the gods, but rather that they saw the human spirit as being made of two parts: that which remembered the body and could return as a ghost (know as the ettemmu) and an immortal, ageless, sexless “dream spirit” which would return to the sky anyway (the Zaqiqu).
The “ghost” (ettemmu) was mortal and would be destroyed with the body if it was cremated. If not, it would exist in the netherword where it would subsist on clay and dust (if no offerings of food and drink were made by the descendants) until it lost it’s identity and became merged into an indistinct “ancient ancestor” spirit.
Spirits could cross the Apsu (“sweet water” – the border of the netherword and also the amniotic fluid) if they forgot their former lives in which case they were reborn. It is unsure how exactly this process was conceived but likely that it was done at the whim of the netherworldy goddess Ereshkigal.