A sarcophagus is a burial container which is carved from stone. Traditionally, many sarcophagi are made from limestone, although a wide variety of types of stone may be used, including granite like that used to make King Tutankhamen's famous sarcophagus. Many people associate the sarcophagus with classical antiquity, since these burial containers were extensively used during this period, although such burial containers continue to be used in some regions today.
The origins of the word “sarcophagus” are rather interesting. The term is derived from the Greek sarx, or “flesh” and phagein, which means “to eat.” The Greeks believed that sarcophagi literally ate the bodies stored inside, dissolving the bones within a very short period of time, especially when they were carved from limestone. The word was borrowed by the Romans, although the interesting idea about decomposition wasn't, and it has since filtered down into the English language.
Numerous ancient cultures used sarcophagi, typically for extremely prominent dead like royalty and civic leaders. In China, ornate stone sarcophagi were used to bury members of the royal family, and they were often elaborately carved, and sometimes inlaid with gold and precious gems. In Egypt, the sarcophagus was used as the outer burial container, typically designed to be large enough to hold a coffin, and sometimes a nesting set of coffins which were meant to prevent decay. The Greeks, after the sixth century, along with the Romans, also used sarcophagi, some of which can still be seen today.
Classically, a sarcophagus is just a big stone box. In some cultures, it is traditional to carve an effigy into the lid of the sarcophagus, depicting the face of the dead person, and in some cases, and effigy may be an entire body. Sarcophagi are also traditionally ornamented with a variety of carvings, many of which feature objects of symbolic significance in addition to decorative value. A sarcophagus may also be lined in lead or other materials to slow the rate of decay.
Although the Greeks may have believed that the sarcophagus would eat bodies, later cultures chose these burial containers because of their indestructibility. They were used as monuments to mighty people in society, and they also kept out grave robbers who might have been interested in jewelry, textiles, and other grave goods which might have been buried with the dead. Today, several examples of ancient sarcophagi are on display in museums all over the world, so that visitors can admire their craftsmanship.