Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Sarcophagi Through the Ages

Sarcophagi = mummified remains within
Or is that what most of us assume when we hear that term? Intrigued by the variation in the sarcophagi in the Louvre Museum, I found that the use of these elaborate coffins and similar objects have existed for some time and in various civilizations.

The housing of the soul and body for its journey to the next life (or afterlife) as it leaves this plane of existence is a part of many cultures. Over time, methods of dealing with our deceased have evolved as societies change and the world becomes more crowded.

In Egypt, the bodies of royalty and noble persons were prepared and placed in a sarcophagus, a funeral container for a corpse. Usually, the outer layers of the box were carved in stone and displayed above ground. They were sometimes buried as well, in royal tombs.

Sarcophagi, Louvre Museum, Paris by DG Hudson

In ancient Egypt, a sarcophagus formed the outer protection for a mummy, usually of royal status.  There could be several layered coffins within, nested for further protection.  Outer and inner layers were decorated with painted or carved representations of the deceased. The intricacy of detail depended on the subject's status and the amount of wealth used in the preparation.

Sarcophagi at the Louvre, Paris by DG Hudson

In Ancient Roman times, metal, plaster or limestone were popular for use in creating sarcophagi.  They were elaborately carved. This existed until the early Christian burial preference for interment underground, which led to the demise of these elaborate coffins. There are many early Christian Sacophagi from the 3rd and 4th centuries which continued the practice with a few changes. See links below.

Carved Sarcophagi at the Louvre, Paris, by DG Hudson

Lack of space in modern times, whether in churches, family burial monuments or in cemeteries, made sarcophagi impractical. However, chest tombs or 'false sarcophagi' became popular in the 18th and 19th centuries in Great Britain. These were empty and bottomless cases placed over an underground burial in outside locations like cemeteries and churchyards. They were not decorated as elaborately as original sarcophagi, but the extra cost of a 'false sarcophagus' as well as the headstone indicated one's social status.

In America during the last part of the 19th century, 'false sarcophagi' made a comeback in cemeteries. This may have been a result of travelers seeing similar objects in Europe. They continued to be popular until the 1950s when easier-to-care-for flat memorials made them obsolete.


Have you ever seen any sarcophagi, in a museum or otherwise? What do you think of elaborate burial coffins? Do they fascinate you, as they do me? 

Please leave a comment to let me know you stopped by, and I'll reply.  I'm trying to visit other blogs when I can while I juggle life on the side. 



sarcophagus (plural, sarcophagi; sarcophaguses) is a box-like funeral receptacle for a corpse