Funerary Art Through the Millennia

Funerary art is any work of art forming or placed in a repository for the remains of the dead. Tomb is a general term for the repository, while grave goods are objects other than the primary human remains which have been placed inside. Such objects may include the personal possessions of the deceased, or objects specially created for the burial, or miniature versions of things needed in an afterlife. Our knowledge of several cultures is drawn largely from these sources.

Funerary art can serve many cultural functions, although generally they are an aesthetic attempt to capture or express the beliefs or emotions about the afterlife. It can play a role in burial rites, serve as an article for use by the dead in the afterlife, and celebrate the life and accomplishments of the dead, as part of practices of ancestor veneration. Funerary art can also function as a reminder of the mortality of humankind, as an expression of cultural values and roles, and help to propitiate the spirits of the dead, preventing their unwelcome intrusion into the affairs of the living. Many cultures have mythological figures, such as the Greek Hermes and Etruscan Charun, who help to conduct the spirit of the dead into the afterlife.

Funerary art goes back to the Neanderthals of over 100,000 years ago, and is known from almost all subsequent cultures - Hindu culture, which has little, is a notable exception. Many of the best known artistic creations of past cultures from the Egyptian pyramids and the Pharaoh Tutankhamun treasure to the Terracotta Army surrounding the tomb of the Qin Emperor, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the Sutton Hoo ship burial, and the Taj Mahal are tombs or objects found in and around them. In most instances, specialized funeral art is mainly produced for the powerful and wealthy, although the burials of ordinary people may include simple monuments, and grave goods, usually from their possessions in life.

Common Terms

A tumulus or mound covered important burials in many cultures, and the body may be placed in a sarcophagus, usually of stone, or a coffin, usually of wood. A mausoleum is a building that was erected mainly as a tomb.

Stele is a term for erect stones that are often what we now call gravestones. Ship burials are mostly found in coastal Europe, while chariot burials are found widely across Eurasia.

Catacombs, of which the most famous examples are those in Rome and Alexandria, are underground cemeteries connected by tunnelled passages. A large group of burials with remaining traces above ground can be called a necropolis; if there are no such visible structures it is a Grave field. A cenotaph is a memorial without a burial.

A related genre is the ancestor portrait, common in cultures as diverse as Ancient Rome and China, which is kept in the house of the descendants, rather than being buried.

Memorials to, or portraits of, ancestor figures take many forms, such as the Moai figures of Easter Island.


Most of humanity's oldest known archaeological constructions are tombs. Mostly megalithic, the earliest instances date to within a few centuries of each other, yet show a wide diversity of form and purpose.

The Iberian peninsula contains tombs that through thermoluminescence indicate a date of c. 4510 B.C, while some burials at the Carnac stones in Brittany date back to the fifth millennium BCE The commemorative value of such burial sites are indicated by the fact that at some stage they became elevated, and that the constructs, almost from the earliest, sought to be monumental. This effect was often sought through encapsulating a single corpse in a basic pit, surrounded by an elaborate ditch and drain. Over-ground commemoration is thought to be tied to the concept of collective memory, and these early tombs were likely intended as a form of ancestor-worship; a development available only to communities that advanced to the stage of settled livestock, and formed social roles and relationships and specialized sectors of activity.

In Neolithic and Bronze Age societies a great variety of tombs are found, with tumulus mounds, megaliths and pottery as recurrent elements.

In Eurasia, Dolmens seem often to be the exposed stone framework for a chamber tomb originally covered by earth to make a mound which no longer exists. Stones may be carved with geometric patterns (petroglyphs), for example Cup and ring marks.

Group tombs were made, the social context of which is hard to decipher. Urn burials, where bones are buried in a pottery container, either in a more elaborate tomb, or by themselves, are widespread, by no means restricted to the Urnfield culture which is named after them, or to Eurasia. Menhirs, or "standing stones", seem often to mark a grave, while the later runestones and image stones often are cenotaphs, or memorials detached from the grave itself; these continue into the Christian period.

Ancient Egypt

Egyptian funerary art was inseparably connected to the belief that life continues after death and that in order to make the journey between this and the next, images and memorabilia should be preserved. The Valley of the Kings was built as a necropolis for royal and elite tombs from about 1500 BCE, while the Theban Necropolis was later an important site for Mortuary temples and mastaba tombs. Individual portraiture of the deceased is found extremely early on. The intention was to commemorate the life of the tomb owner, provide supplies necessary for the afterlife, depict performance of the burial rites, and in general present an environment that would be conducive to the tomb owner's rebirth. There is a special category of Ancient Egyptian funerary texts, which clarify the purposes of the burial customs. The Egyptian mummy, encased in one or more layers of coffin, is famous; the Canopic jars contained several internal organs.

Lower citizens used common forms of funerary art including shabti figurines (to perform any labor that might be required of the dead person in the afterlife), models of the scarab beetle and books of the dead which they believed would protect them in the afterlife During the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, miniature wooden or clay models depicting scenes from everyday life became popular additions to the tomb. In an attempt to duplicate the activities of the living in the afterlife, these models show laborers, houses, boats, and even military formations which are scale representations of the ideal ancient Egyptian afterlife.

Ancient Greece

The ancient Greeks did not generally leave elaborate grave goods, except for a coin in the hand to pay Charon, the ferryman to Hades, and pottery; however the epitaphios or funeral oration (from which epitaph comes) was regarded as of great importance, and animal sacrifices were made.

Those who could afford them erected stone monuments, which was one of the functions of kouros statues in the Archaic period before about 500 BCE. These were not intended as portraits, but during the Hellenistic period realistic portraiture of the deceased were introduced and family groups were often depicted in bas-relief on monuments, usually surrounded by an architectural frame.

The walls of tomb chambers were often painted in fresco, although few examples have survived in as good condition as the Tomb of the Diver from southern Italy. Almost the only surviving painted portraits in the classical Greek tradition are found in Egypt rather than Greece.

The Fayum mummy portraits, from the very end of the classical period, were portrait faces, in a Graeco-Roman style, attached to mummies.

Early Greek burials were frequently marked above ground by a large piece of pottery, and remains were also buried in urns. Pottery continued to be used extensively inside tombs and graves throughout the classical period. The larnax is a small coffin or ash-chest, usually of decorated terracotta.

The two-handled loutrophoros was primarily associated with weddings, as it was used to carry water for the nuptial bath. However, it was also placed in the tombs of the unmarried, "presumably to make up in some way for what they had missed in life."

The one-handled lekythos had many household uses, but outside the household its principal use was for decoration of tombs. Scenes of a descent to the underworld of Hades were often painted on these, with the dead depicted beside Hermes, Charon or both - though usually only with Charon.

Small pottery figurines are often found, though it is hard to decide if these were made especially for placing in tombs; in the case of the Hellenistic Tanagra figurines this seems probably not the case. But silverware is more often found around the fringes of the Greek world, as in the royal Macedonian tombs of Vergina, or in the neighbouring cultures like those of Thrace or the Scythians.

Etruscan Civilization

Objects connected with death, in particular sarcophagi and cinerary urns, form the basis of much of our knowledge of the ancient Etruscan civilization and its art, which once competed with the culture of ancient Rome, but was eventually absorbed into it. The sarcophagi and the lids of the urns often incorporate a reclining image of the deceased. The reclining figures in some Etruscan funerary art are shown using the mano cornuta to protect the grave.

The motif of the funerary art of the 7th and 6th centuries BCE was typically a feasting scene, sometimes with dancers and musicians, or athletic competitions. Household bowls, cups, and pitchers are sometimes found in the graves, along with foodstuffs such as "actual eggs, pomegranates, honey, grapes and olives" for their use in the afterlife."

From the 5th century, the mood changed to more somber and gruesome scenes of parting, where the deceased are shown leaving their loved ones, often surrounded by underworld demons such as Charun or the winged female Vanth. The underworld figures are sometimes depicted as gesturing impatiently for a human to be taken away. The handshake was another common motif, as the dead took leave from the living. This often took place in front of or near a closed double doorway, presumably the portal to the underworld. Evidence in some art, however, suggests that the "handshake took place at the other end of the journey, and represents the dead being greeted in the Underworld".

Ancient Rome

The burial customs of the ancient Romans were influenced by both of the first significant cultures whose territories they conquered as their state expanded, namely the ancient Greeks and the Etruscans. The original Roman custom was cremation, after which the burnt remains were kept in a pot, ash-chest or urn, often in a columbarium; pre-Roman burials around Rome often used hut-urns - little pottery houses.

From about the second century BCE, inhumation (burial of un-burnt remains) in sarcophagi, often elaborately carved, became more fashionable for those who could afford them. Greek-style medallion portrait sculptures on a stela, or small mausoleum for the rich, housing either an urn or sarcophagus were often placed in a location such as a roadside where it would be very visible to those still living, and perpetuate the memory of the dead. Often a couple are shown, which signifies a longing for reunion in the afterlife, rather than a double burial.

In later periods, life-size sculptures of the deceased reclining as though at a meal or social gathering are found; a common Etruscan style. Family tombs for the grandest late Roman families were large mausoleums with facilities for visits by the living, including kitchens and bedrooms.

The Castel Sant'Angelo, built for Hadrian, was later converted into a fortress. Compared to the Etruscans, though, there was less emphasis on provision of a life-style for the deceased, although paintings of useful objects or pleasant activities, like hunting, are seen.

Ancestor portraits, usually in the form of wax masks, were kept in the home, apparently often in little cupboards, although grand patrician families kept theirs on display in the atrium. They were worn in the funeral processions of members of the family by persons wearing appropriate costume for the figure represented, as described by Pliny the Elder and Polybius. Pliny also describes the custom of having a bust-portrait of an ancestor painted on a round bronze shield (clipeus), and having it hung in a temple or other public place. No examples of either type have survived.


Funerary art varied greatly across Chinese history: tombs of early rulers rival the ancient Egyptians for complexity, and the value of the grave goods, and have been equally pillaged over the centuries by tomb robbers.

For a long time literary references to Jade burial suits were regarded by scholars as fanciful myths, but a number of examples were excavated in the 20th century, and it is now believed that they were relatively common among early rulers.

Knowledge of pre-dynastic Chinese culture has been expanded by spectacular discoveries at Sanxingdui and other sites. Very large tumuli could be erected, and later mausoleums. Several special large shapes of Shang dynasty bronze ritual vessels may have been made for burial only; the Tomb of Fu Hao is one of the few undisturbed royal tombs of the period to have been excavated - most funerary art has appeared on the art market without archaeological context.

The Complex of Goguryeo Tombs, from a kingdom of the 5th to 7th centuries, which included modern Korea, are especially rich in paintings.

Only one of the Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties has been excavated, in 1956, with such disastrous results for the conservation of the thousands of objects found, that the current policy is to leave them undisturbed.

The Lei Cheng Uk Han Tomb Museum in Hong Kong displays a far humbler middle-class Han dynasty tomb.

Sculptures of guardian figures, whether the terracotta army or later Buddhist deity figures, are common. Early burial customs show a strong belief in an afterlife, and a spirit path to it that needed facilitating. Funerals and memorials were also an opportunity to reaffirm important cultural values such as filial piety and "the honor and respect due to seniors, the duties incumbent on juniors".

The common Chinese funerary symbol of a woman in the door may represent a "basic male fantasy of an elysian afterlife with no restrictions: in all the doorways of the houses stand available women looking for newcomers to welcome into their chambers" Han Dynasty inscriptions often describe the filial mourning for their subjects.


Unlike many Western cultures, Mesoamerica is generally lacking in sarcophagi, with a few notable exceptions such as that of Pacal the Great or the now-lost sarcophagus from the Olmec site of La Venta. Instead, most Mesoamerican funerary art takes the form of grave goods and, in Oaxaca, funerary urns.

Two well-known examples of Mesoamerican grave goods are those from Jaina Island, a Maya site off the coast of Campeche, and those associated with the Western Mexico shaft tomb tradition. Jaina Island graves are noted for the abundance of clay figurines found there. Human remains within the roughly 1,000 excavated graves on the island (out of 20,000 total) were found to be accompanied by glassware, slateware, or pottery as well as one or more ceramic figurines, usually resting on the occupant's chest or held in their hands. The function of these ceramic figurines is not known. Due to gender and age mis-matches, the figurines are unlikely to be portraits of the grave occupants, although the later figurines are known to be representations of goddesses.

The so-called shaft tomb tradition of western Mexico is known almost exclusively from grave goods, which include hollow ceramic figures, obsidian and shell jewelry, pottery, and other items. Of particular note are the various ceramic tableaux including village scenes, for example, players engaged in the Mesoamerican ballgame. Although these tableaux may merely depict village life, it has been proposed that they instead (or also) depict the underworld. Ceramic dogs are also widely known from looted tombs, and are thought by some to represent psychopomps, or soul guides, although it should also be noted that dogs were often the major source of animal protein in ancient Mesoamerica.

The Zapotec civilization of Oaxaca is particularly known for its clay funerary urns, such as the "bat god". Numerous types of urns have been identified while some show deities and other supernaturals, others seem to be portraits.

The Maya Naj Tunich cave tombs and other sites contain paintings, carved stelae, and grave goods in pottery, jade and metal, including death masks.

In dry areas many ancient textiles have been found in graves from South America's Paracas culture, which wrapped its mummies tightly in several layers of elaborately patterned cloth.

Elite Moche graves, containing especially fine pottery, were incorporated into large adobe structures also used for human sacrifices, such as the Huaca de la Luna.

Andean cultures, such as the Sican, often practiced mummification, and left grave goods in precious metals with jewels, including tumi ritual knives and gold funerary masks, as well as pottery.

The Mimbres of the Mogollon culture buried their dead with bowls on top of their heads and ceremonially "killed" each bowl with a small hole in the center so that the deceased's spirit could arise to another world. Mimbres funerary bowls show scenes of hunting, gambling, planting crops, fishing, making love and giving birth.


The Catacombs of Rome contain most of the Christian art of the Early Christian period, mainly in the form of frescos and sculpture. This shows a Christian iconography emerging, initially from Roman popular decorative art, but later borrowing from official Imperial and pagan motifs.

For several centuries, Christians avoided portraits of the deceased and sarcophagi were decorated with ornament, Christian symbols like the Chi-Rho monogram and, later on, religious scenes.

The Early Christian habit, after the end of persecution, of building churches, most famously St Peter's, Rome, over the burial place of martyrs who had originally been buried discreetly, or in a mass grave, perhaps led to the most distinctive feature of Christian funerary art, the church monument, or tomb inside a church.

The beliefs of many cultures, including Judaism and Hinduism, consider the dead ritually impure and avoid mixing temples and cemeteries.

Christians believed in a bodily Resurrection of the dead at the Second Coming of Christ, and the Catholic Church only relaxed its opposition to cremation in 1963. Although mass ossuaries have also been used, burial has always been the preferred Christian tradition, at least until recent times. Burial was, for as long as there was room, usually in a graveyard adjacent to the church, with a gravestone or horizontal slab, or for the wealthy, or important clergy, inside it.

"Wall tombs" in churches strictly include the body itself, often in a sarcophagus, while often the body is buried in a crypt or under the church floor, and there is a monument on the wall. Important people, especially monarchs, might be buried in a free-standing sarcophagus, perhaps surrounded by an elaborate enclosure using metalwork and sculpture; grandest of all of these were the shrines of saints which were the destinations of pilgrimages.

The monument to Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor in the Hofkirche, Innsbruck took decades to complete, whereas the tomb of Saint Dominic in Bologna took several centuries to reach its final form.

The Tomb of Antipope John XXIII in Florence is a grand Early Renaissance wall tomb by Donatello and Michelozzo, although classical in style, it reflects the somewhat unharmonious stacking up of different elements typical of major Gothic tombs. It has a life-size effigy lying on the sarcophagus, which was common from the Romanesque period through to the Baroque and beyond.

The Scaliger tombs in Verona are magnificent free-standing Gothic canopied tombs found outside the church, in a special enclosure, and so unrestricted in height.

Important churches like Saint Peter's in Rome, Saint Paul's Cathedral, London, Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice (twenty-five Doges), and the Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence contain large numbers of impressive monuments to the great and the good, for which the finest architects and sculptors available were employed.

Local parish churches are also often full of monuments, which may include large and artistically significant ones for local landowners and notables. Often a prominent family would add a special chapel for their use, including their tombs.

In Catholic countries bequests would pay for masses to be said in perpetuity for their souls. By the High Renaissance, led by Michelangelo's tombs, the effigies are often sitting up, and later may stand. Often they turn towards the altar, or are kneeling facing it in profile.

In the late Middle Ages, perhaps influenced by the Black Death and devotional writers, explicit Memento mori imagery of death in the forms of skulls or skeletons, or even decomposing corpses overrun with worms, became common in Northern Europe, and may be found in some funerary art, as well as motifs like the Dance of Death and works like the Ars Moriendi, or "Art of Dying".

It took until the Baroque period for such imagery to become popular in Italy, in works like the tomb of Pope Urban VIII by Bernini (1628Š47), where a bronze winged skeleton inscribes the Pope's name on a tablet below his enthroned effigy.

Christian grave goods are usually restricted to clothes and the jewellery normally worn, especially rings. Kings might be buried with a sceptre, and bishops with a crozier, their respective symbols of office.

The 7th century Stonyhurst Gospel, with a unique Insular original leather binding, was recovered from St Cuthbert's coffin, itself a significant object; it was probably Cuthbert's personal copy, which he had very likely scribed himself. The armour and sword of a knight might be hung over his tomb, as those of the Black Prince still are in Canterbury Cathedral.

The Early Christian Church, to the frustration of historians of costume, encouraged burial in a plain white winding-sheet, as being all that would be required at the Second Coming.

For centuries most except royalty followed this custom, which at least kept clothing, which was very expensive for rich and poor alike, available for the use of the living. The use of a rich cloth pall to cover the coffin during the funeral grew during the Middle Ages; initially these were brightly colored and patterned, only later black. They were usually then given to the Church to use for vestments or other decorations.

From the early 13th century to the 16th, a popular form of monument north of the Alps, especially for the smaller landowner and merchant classes, was the Monumental brass, a sheet of brass on which the image of the person or persons commemorated was engraved, often with inscriptions and an architectural surround. They could be on the floor or wall, inside a church. These provide valuable evidence as to changes in costume, especially for women. Many bishops, and even some German rulers, were commemorated with brasses.

The castrum doloris was a temporary catafalque erected around the coffin for the lying in state of important people, usually in a church, the funerary version of the elaborate temporary decorations for other court festivities, like royal entries.

A particular feature in Poland was the coffin portrait, a bust-length painted portrait of the deceased, attached to the coffin but removed before burial, and often then hung in the church. Elsewhere death masks were used in similar fashion. Hatchments were a special lozenge-shaped painted coat of arms which was displayed on the house of the deceased for a mourning period, before usually being moved to hang in the church. Like mourning clothes, these fall outside a strict definition of art.

Musical settings of the Requiem, or Mass (music) for the dead, have been important in Western church music, with many composed for a specific funeral, by composers such as Ockeghem (late 15th century, the oldest polyphonic setting to survive), Lassus, Mozart, FaurŽ, Maurice DuruflŽ, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Arvo PŠrt.

For some time after the Protestant Reformation, funerary works formed the majority of large-scale artworks added to Protestant churches, especially in sculpture. The English upper-classes ceased to commission altarpieces and other religious art for churches, but their tomb monuments continued to grow in size; in Lutheran countries similar trends were seen, but Calvinists tended to be more disapproving of figure sculpture. Many portraits were painted after death, and sometimes dead family members were included along with the living; a variety of indications might be used to suggest the distinction.

By the 19th century many Old World churchyards and church walls had completely run out of room for new monuments, and cemeteries on the outskirts of the city, town or village became the usual place for burials. The rich developed the classical styles of the ancient world for small family tombs, while the rest continued to use gravestones or what were now usually false sarcophagi, placed over an underground coffin burial. Where burials in church crypts or floors took place, memorial stained glass windows, mostly on normal religious subjects but with a commemorative panel, are often found. War memorials, other than on the site of a battle, were relatively unusual until the 19th century, but became increasingly common during it, and after the First World War were erected even in villages of the main combatant nations.


Islamic funerary art is dominated by architecture. Grave goods are discouraged, and royalty and important religious figures are typically buried in plain stone sarcophagi, perhaps with a religious inscription. In the Persian sphere a tradition of mausoleums evolved, often in the shape of short hexagonal or octagonal domed towers, like the Malek Tomb.

These developed into larger buildings in the Timurid and Mughal Empires, like the Gur-e Amir tomb of Timur at Samarkand, and the famous Mughal tombs, which culminate in the Taj Mahal. The Mughal tombs are mostly set in a large walled garden, with a gatehouse, and often pavilions at the corners, and may have minarets although they do not normally function as mosques. The Tomb of Jahangir lacks a dome completely, and the Tomb of Akbar the Great has only small decorative ones. Other Islamic Indian rulers built similar tombs, of which the Gol Gumbaz is perhaps the most remarkable.

In all this tradition the contemporary architectural style for mosques is adapted for a building with a smaller main room, and usually no courtyard. Decoration is often tilework, and can include pietre dure inlays in semi-precious stone, painting, and decorative carving. The sarcophagus may be in a small inner chamber, dimly visible through a grille of metal or stone, or may stand in the main room. Money would be bequeathed to pay for continuous readings of the Qu'ran in the mausoleum, and they were normally open for visitors to pay their respects. The Mausoleum of Khomeini, still under construction in a Tehran cemetery, and intended to be the centre of a huge complex, continues these traditions.

The tradition evolved differently in the Ottoman world, where smaller single-roomed tŸrbe typically stand in the grounds of mosque complexes, often built by the deceased. The sarcophagi (often purely symbolic as the body is below the floor) may be draped in a rich pall, and surmounted by a real cloth or stone turban, which is also traditional at the top of ordinary Turkish gravestones (usually in stylised form). Two of the most famous are in the SŸleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul; the Yesil TŸrbe of 1421 is an unusually large example in Bursa, and also unusual in having extensive tile work on the exterior, which is usually masonry, whereas the interiors are often decorated with brightly-colored tiles.

In the Arab world mausoleums of rulers are more likely to be a side-room inside a mosque, or form part of a larger complex containing perhaps a hospital, madrasa or library. Large domes, elaborately decorated inside, are common. The tomb-mosque of Sultan Qaitbay (died 1496) is a famous example, one of many in Cairo, though here the tomb chamber is unusually large compared to the whole.

Modern Day

Funerary art tends to be conservative in style, and many grave-markers in various cultures follow rather traditional patterns, while others reflect Modernism or other more recent styles. Public monuments to the dead continue to be erected, again some are fairly traditional, while others like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and in particular several Holocaust memorials such as Yad Vashem, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial reflected contemporary art. These are in notable contrast to the style of most war memorials to the military of World War II.

Many large mausoleums have been constructed for political leaders, including Lenin's Mausoleum and those for AtatŸrk, Jinnah, Kim Il-Sung, Che Guevara and several Presidential memorials in the United States.