The Book of the Dead was an ancient Egyptian funerary text, which literally would be translated as "Book of Coming Forth by Day" or "Book of Emerging Forth Into the Light." The text consists of various spells and incantations to assist the deceased in their journey through the Underworld or Duat, vast underground catacombs connected by Nun, the waters of the primordial abyss.
There was no single or canonical Book of the Dead. It was, rather, personalized for each burial, with the dying choosing, perhaps, the spells they thought most vital in their own progression to the afterlife. Our modern versions of the Book of the Dead are derived from several extant personalized copies as well as various compositions which the Egyptians inscribed upon the walls of tombs and sarcophagi, coffins and amulets, etc., in order to ensure the well-being of their dead in the world beyond the grave.
A Book of the Dead papyrus was produced to order by scribes, commissioned by customers in preparation for their own funerals, or by the relatives of someone recently deceased. Such funeral books were commissioned for Egyptian kings and queens, princes and nobles, gentle and simple, rich and poor, from about B.C. 1600 to B.C. 900. Commissions could be very expensive, with one source quoting the price of a Book of the Dead scroll as one deben of silver, which amounted to half the annual salary of a common laborer. To keep prices more reasonable, books were sometimes prefabricated in funerary workshops, with spaces left blank for the name of the deceased to be written in later. In addition, Book of the Dead papyri were often the work of several different scribes and artists whose work was literally pasted together to fit the preferences of each customer.
The existence of the Book of the Dead was known as early as the Middle Ages, but its contents were not immediately understood. Since it was found in tombs, it was evidently a document of a religious nature, and this led to widespread misconceptions, with early scholars assuming (falsely) that the Book of the Dead was the equivalent of a Bible or Qu'ran. Still, many important ideas and beliefs of Egyptian civilization are embodied in its pages.
The American rock band The Grateful Dead reportedly drew their name from a passage in the Book of the Dead which reads: "We now return our souls to the creator, as we stand on the edge of eternal darkness. Let our chant fill the void in order that others may know. In the land of the night the ship of the sun is drawn by the grateful dead."