Despite what you may have heard on the internet, the ancient Egyptians weren't really obsessed with death. Rather, they were obsessed with life – the afterlife, to be exact. Preservation of the body and preparation for the next world were massively important, highly desirable concepts to pretty much every average Egyptian Jack and Jill back in the day. So, how did people die in ancient Egypt? Well, they died a lot like many people die today – looking forward to something better on the other side.
But if they were obsessed with anything, it wasn't with death; it was with their chances in life after death. This was a really good thing to be obsessed about because, as the "Violence" entry in the UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology puts it:
However violent reality was, it pales in comparison to the violence potentially experienced as part of the afterlife.
So on that happy note, here are some of the craziest and most gruesome ways people died in ancient Egypt. Hopefully the people who suffered the fates below were able to avoid a second, and probably way more painful, death in the afterlife.
Prisoners of War Had Giant Spikes Rammed up Their Asses
The ancient practice of skewering people on stakes is enough to make anyone shudder, which is why it was used to send a loud and clear message to dissuade potential rebels from causing any trouble. According to the UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Pharaoh Akhenaten (King Tut's probable father, likely by his own biological sister) reportedly impaled a whopping 225 Nubian prisoners of war at one point. Another pharaoh, Merenptah, gave "a great number" of poor Libyans the same pokey-pokey treatment. We can hear the conversation now:
"Hey Joe, what say we sharpen our swords and try to overthrow the pharaoh this afternoon?"
"Well, Joe, normally I'd say yes, but I don't want my ass slowly lowered onto a sharp, pointy stick in the morning, like what happened to Jim."
Soldiers Had Their Heads and Dicks Chopped Off
This gory story is accounted for by the Narmer Palette, a marvelously carved siltstone object that, at 5,000-ish years old, is one of the most important and priceless artifacts from ancient Egypt.
The Narmer Palette was discovered at the site of the ancient capital city of Nekhen (or Hierakonpolis, "Hawk City") at the end of the 19th century. It celebrates the exploits of Pharaoh Narmer, as you might expect, highlighting his victory over foes of uncertain identity. What is certain, however, is the fate of the ten soldiers Narmer's seen inspecting on the verso. They've all been decapitated, and also de-dickilated, if you get the meaning.
The severed heads have all been dumped between the dead men's legs, with the genitals placed atop the associated faces. Positively charming!
Kids Could Be Cut Up and Burnt Alive on a Bed of Thorns
Here's one for the kids: Don't murder your parents in ancient Egypt, because if you do, you'll be looking at a ridiculously harsh punishment. A Greek historian named Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century B.C. about Egyptian history and customs, recounts the truly horrific treatment prescribed for young parricides:
[I]t was required that those found guilty of this crime should have pieces of flesh about the size of a finger cut out of their bodies with sharp reeds and then be put on a bed of thorns and burned alive.
That sounds about right.
So, why such brutality? Well, as Dio Sic puts it, the punishment was extraordinary because the Egyptians considered this crime – taking the life of those who gave you life – to be the worst thing a human was capable of.
Servants Were Slaughtered and Buried as Human Sacrifices
Important Egyptians occasionally figured their chances in the afterlife were a lot better if they had some company. Specifically, the company of dozens of other people and pets – not necessarily willing company, either.
In The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, Toby Wilkinson describes how elites sometimes had "subsidiary graves" for said people and pets. One site contained several dismembered bodies buried with the big dog. In other sites, unfortunate souls were found scalped, strangled, and decapitated as human sacrifices for the next world.
Djer, the third pharaoh of ancient Egypt's First Dynasty, actually took a grand total of 318 lives along with him around 2900 B.C. Good times.