History of Embalming

I. Beginnings in Egypt


Egypt is credited with being the land where embalming began. During the period from 6000 BC to 600 AD approximately 400,000,000 bodies were mummified.

The process was practiced in Egypt was done for two reasons:

Religious
Greek historian Herodotus maintained that the Egyptians were the first people to believe in the immortality of the soul. They believed that the soul would never fully forsake the body as long as the body remained intact.

Embalming was for the purpose of preserving the body so that the soul could return to it after the completion of the “circle of necessity.” This “circle of necessity” was a 3,000 year journey the soul was required to make before it could return to the body. At that time, the whole man would arise from the dead and live with the gods forever.

Sanitation
The writer Cassius maintained that embalming was developed to provide a solution to the problem of trying to bury the dead in the Nile valley which would be inundated on a frequent basis. The Egyptians apparently also noted that this unsanitary condition caused more deaths.

II. The Egyptian Embalming Method

The Egyptian embalmers were members of the priesthood. Some believe that their method is a “lost art” but in fact it was rather crude and rather than lost, well known and documented. Much of their success was undoubtedly due to the dry hot climate. Dead bodies are destroyed by the action of bacteria. Heat and lack of moisture are natural enemies to bacterial survival and growth.

The Egyptians practiced three methods of embalming based upon the wealth of the individual. The most expensive method was comprised of 5 steps and would cost over $2,000 in today’s dollars. The cheapest would have cost about $150.

Step 1. Removal of the brain. The skull was then repacked with resin.

Step 2. Evisceration. The internal organs were removed through an abdominal incision. The
organs were either washed and mixed with resins and spices and returned to the body or were placed in separate burial vases called canopic jars.

Step 3. Immersion. The body was immersed in natron (sodium salt). The caustic action of the solution would cause the fingernails and toe nails to be removed. They were replaced in keeping with the belief that the body must be intact 3,000 years later. This immersion lasted for 20-70 days.

Step 4. Dehydration. The body wascleansed, straightened and allowed to dehydrate in the sun.

Step 5. Wrapping. About 1200 yards of 3 1/4 inch bandage was used to wrap the body. Gum or glue held the cloth together and helped to fit it around the body while still damp. The body was then placed in a sarcophagus and returned to the family.

The cheapest method was reserved for the poorest lass of people, which made up about 80% of the Egyptian population. It basically consisted of immersion in the natron solution. Within a walled suburb known as the Necropolis (Literally, “City of the dead”) all death care activities took place. Within these walls resided all those involved in these activities including coffin makers, artists, and the embalmers. Also located here were the crypts and tombs.

III. Other Early Practices

  • The Egyptians were not the only people to practice preservation of the dead.
  • Ancient Ethiopian tribes preserved their dead in a manner similar to the Egyptians.
  • Aboriginal inhabitants of the Canary Islands from 900 BC practiced mummification of their dead.
  • Babylonians, Persians, and Syrians preserved their dead by placing them in jars of honey or wax. By depriving the bacteria in the body of air, decomposition was prevented.
  • Peruvians practiced mummification 1000 years prior to being conquered by Spain in the early 16th century.
  • Jewish preservation customs are simple. Embalming and cremation were generally not allowed, as they were seen as mutilation of the body. As described in the scriptures, preparation for burial consisted of wrapping the body and the application of oils and spices.
  • The Greeks believed that the deceased must make a journey across the river Styx to the land of eternity. A coin was placed in the mouth of the deceased to pay passage over the river. A cake of honey was placed next to the body to appease the three headed dog, Cerebus, who guarded the entrance to Hades. Interment was delayed three days to prevent premature burial. Cremation came into practice around 300 BC.
  • The Romans also did not practice embalming. The body was washed daily for seven days with hot water and oil. This delay also was to prevent premature burial. A group of slaves called pollinctores performed this process. Funeral processions were held at night to avoid defilement of the living. The procession was managed by a Designator, who functioned much like the modern day funeral director. Burial later gave way to cremation. At one point, cremation was forbidden within the gates of Rome because so many bodies were burned at once, causing smoke pollution.

V. Early Christian Customs

The early Christians derived their burial customs from the Greeks, Romans, and Jews. They followed the strong Jewish tradition of burial with no embalming, upholding the sacred status of burial grounds.

VI. Influence of Scientific Developments

During the “Dark Ages” in Europe, embalming was generally not practiced. During this period, great advances were being made in medicine and bodies were needed for dissection purposes. For this sole purpose, some preservation was practiced and techniques perfected.

During this time, the following discoveries were made that would have a great influence on modern embalming techniques:

  • Leonardo DaVinci (1452-1519) produced hundreds of anatomical plates as a result of his dissection of the human body. He undoubtedly used arterial injection to preserve his specimens.
  • Dr. Frederick Ruysch (1665-1717) is generally considered the father of embalming with his discovery of the first successful system of arterial embalming.
  • Dr. William Harvey (1578-1657) was the English physician who discovered the circulation of blood.
  • Dr. William Hunter (1718-1783) is credited with being the first to successfully adopt arterial injection as a means of preservation.
  • Jean Gannal (1791-1882) began as an apothecary’s assistant and became the first to offer embalming to the French general public.
  • Anthony Van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) manufactured the microscope and discovered bacteria in 1683.
  • Alexander Butlerov (1828-1866) and Wilhelm von Hofmann (1818-1892) are credited with the discovery of formaldehyde.
  • Dr. Thomas Holmes (1817-1900) is generally considered the father of modern embalming. He experimented with preservative chemicals while working as a coroner’s assistant in New York and later offered his services to the public.

VII. Early American Embalming

Modern embalming really got its start during the Civil War period. Dr. Thomas Holmes received a commission as a captain in the Army Medical Corps and was assigned to Washington, D.C. where he embalmed many army officers killed in battle. He reportedly embalmed over 4000 soldiers and officers.

President Lincoln took a great interest in embalming and directed the Quartermaster Corps to utilize the method to allow Union dead to return to their home towns for proper burial.

When he realized the commercial potential of this form of preservation, Holmes resigned his commission and began offering it to the public for $100.

After the Civil War, embalming fell into disuse because of lack of demand and few to do the procedure. The “undertakers” of the day limited their efforts to ice to ward off decomposition long enough to have a funeral.

VIII. Twentieth Century Practices

By the turn of the century, wooden coffins were being made to order by the local carpenter or cabinet maker. A few even made coffins beforehand but met with criticism by the public for their boldness.

The cabinetmaker rarely became involved in any aspect of the funeral other than providing the coffin. Even the conveyance of the deceased was done by someone else, the livery man.

With the passing of time, these men became more and more involved in providing other services and advise to those planning the funeral.

Eventually the person who would “undertake” to manage all funeral details and provide funeral merchandise became known as an “undertaker.” He eventually obtained and provided all the necessary items for the funeral including the hearse, door badges, coffin rests, etc.

Once it became possible for the undertaker to provide embalming services, the haste was taken out of the burial process and people were given ample time to arrange and prepare for the funeral.

The first embalming preparations were arsenic solutions, which were rapidly replaced when formaldehyde became available. Representatives for embalming fluid companies would travel the country presenting one or two day schools of instruction in the use of their product. After these classes and purchasing a quantity of fluid, an undertaker received a certificate as an embalmer. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that state licensing became almost universal.

While this education seems wholly inadequate, it should be remembered that physicians and dentists of the day did not have much education either prior to practicing their profession.

From the cabinetmaker who simply supplied a coffin, the funeral director today provides over 130 separate services for a family.

Modern Embalming

Editor’s Note:

We have omitted the graphic description of the modern embalming procedure as our primary readers are families who are facing an imminent death and some have commented that it is uncomfortable to read the description. For the complete description, please go to the Wyoming Funeral Directors Association web site.

Please also note that embalming is seldom necessary. It is done primarily to facilitate funeral services where the casket is open to the public and to help achieve a desired cosmetic result. Preservation of the body or other similar procedures, and acceptable shipping containers are required for shipment by common carrier.

The modern method of embalming is defined as the disinfection and preservation of the dead human body.

It is performed for three reasons:

  • The primary purpose of embalming is disinfection. While some pathogens die soon after the death of the host, many dangerous organisms have the ability to survive for long periods of time in dead tissues. Persons coming in direct contact with the unembalmed body can become infected as well as there being the possibility of flies or other agents transferring pathogens to humans.
  • The second purpose preservation. The prevention of putrefaction and decomposition allows burial, cremation, or entombment to take place without the odors or other unpleasantness that accompany uncared for remains.
  • The third purpose is restoration. Returning the body to a life-like appearance has received many critics, but the custom of viewing the body after death in a state of rest remains a practice of proven psychological worth.

The modern embalming process is designed to slow tissue decomposition for the period of time necessary for disposition as arranged by the family of the deceased. Under favorable conditions, modern processes have shown to be able to keep a body intact for decades.

Rather than prevent the body from returning to natural elements, embalming allows the body to decompose by oxidation and dissolution rather than by putrefaction or rotting.

Embalming Process

Embalming is accomplished by a chemical “fixation” of the cell protein. Formaldehyde reacts with the soluble albumins in the cell and converts them to albuminoids or gels. At the same time, the bacterias are destroyed, thus halting, or at least delaying, decomposition. Once the process is properly completed, the body can only be attacked by air-borne bacteria and molds that eventually destroy the body if exposed to air with sufficient moisture.

In modern embalming then, a fluid that is both a disinfectant and a preservative is injected into the circulatory system of the body by an electric pump, while the blood is forced out of the body and disposed of. In effect, the blood is replaced with a disinfectant and preservative solution.

©2001 Curtis D. Rostad

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