As the old saying goes, you can’t take it with you (when you die). Meant to inspire people to enjoy the material things in life while they are alive, it is a reminder that money and objects are of little use to the dead. This is a relatively new idea within the span of human evolution though, as many cultures have had, or still use, “grave goods” in their burial rituals.
Grave goods are the material objects buried or burned with the dead, and it is this custom that has allowed us to glimpse into the past of many cultures that we may not have had the chance to otherwise (almost all our knowledge of the Etruscans, for example, comes from their tombs). Grave goods didn’t always just relate to objects; many of the old world cultures (especially for powerful royalty) would also bury other (living) people alongside in a practice known as retainer sacrifice. For some rulers, this may have even included loved ones, not to mention attendants and servants to help them in the Afterlife.
In time this sacrificial practice began to decline, but the idea was retained, with symbolic representations taking their place. The Egyptians used Shabti Dolls, known as the ‘answerers’, who would accompany the dead to the afterlife. Each doll would be carved in the shape of a mummy, with a spell written upon it to denote its role or purpose. These would be buried alongside the mummy, so that when Osiris called upon the deceased to help him the doll could ‘answer’ and perform the task for them. The Chinese Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, had a similar notion and built the famous 8000+ terracotta army to protect him into the afterlife.
Grave goods often consisted of valuable objects, which demonstrates how culturally important these rituals were. One of the most extravagant examples unearthed in recent times is Tutankhamun’s tomb which was filled with priceless treasures. The value of the 110 kgs of gold used just to make his inner coffin is worth about $4.7M USD, while the artisan craft-work involved in making his funerary mask renders it priceless.
These practices weren’t only reserved for royalty and the rich though. Nordic burials would also include many treasured items, as it was important for the deceased to have the same stature in the afterlife as they enjoyed on the earthly plane. Free men would be buried with swords and riding equipment, artisans with their tools, and women with their jewelry and household items. Things they were believed to have needed to continue on in their next life.
Grave robbing was a constant problem too, and a great affront to the deceased. Many of the Etruscan goods recovered have the word śuθina (from a tomb) inscribed upon them so that they were identified as cursed and useless. The Egyptian Kings faced the same issue, so moved from the giant pyramid complexes of the Old Kingdom to nondescript buried tombs in the Valley of the Kings (The natural shape of the mountain fulfilled the pyramids role).
Around the 17th century the Chinese started replacing their own grave goods with special symbolic offerings made out of joss paper rather than the actual objects. These paper imitations would be burnt as offerings for the deceased to take with them into the next life. While the Chinese government outlawed many of these symbolic offerings in 2006 as being vulgar (the paper effigies started including luxury homes, speed boats, sports cars, and big breasted starlets) the tradition remains in the form of fake joss paper currency that can be burnt in offering. These are often called Hell Notes in the West, a mis-translation purportedly caused by Christian missionaries telling the local Chinese that they were going to Hell for their rituals. Having no such concept of Hell, they assumed Hell meant Afterlife, and told the missionaries that their offerings were indeed Hell Notes. Voila! a brand new tradition was born.
A Fifty Billion Hell Note Dollar bill. You can get 60 packs with different designs and denominations for $15-$45 on Amazon. The male figure that typically appears on Hell Notes is the Jade Emperor, a central Daoist deity, and the father of the Vân Cát Goddess.
The Navajo burial sites also contain grave goods, but have an entirely different take on their importance; a persons goods would be buried with them to prevent the deceased spirit from remaining in this world. By burying any object belonging to the deceased with them, they would have no reason to remain is this world and be encourage to take the journey to the next. This ritual cleansing extended to the dead person’s Hogan (shelter), if the person had died within it. The deceased would be buried where they passed away, and the dwelling dismantled, its parts laid upon the grave. The Navajo even went as far as refraining from any emotional outbursts that might result in the spirit felling attached.
In the western world these days, most of us go to the grave empty handed. Hopefully we won’t find ourselves standing on the edge of the threshold with the realization we are woefully under-equipped for the next world, or worse yet, destined to remain in limbo. My Dad always reminds us to bury him with coins on his eyes, so at the very least he will be able to pay the ferryman Charon to row him across the river. Indeed, perhaps we should consider the Boy Scout motto: