Embalming is the practice of getting a person's body ready to be buried.

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Introduction to How Embalming Works

After President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated shortly after the Civil War, he had one more trip across the country to make. However, this time was different; rather than speaking to the public, the public spoke its final farewell to him. It took 19 days for the trip from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Ill., for Lincoln's burial. Time, though, was not an issue.

Had the procession taken place prior to the Civil War, the story would have been different. Thanks to Dr. Thomas Holmes and his use of a chemical process to temporarily preserve the bodies of the recently deceased, Lincoln, just like thousands of Civil War soldiers, was preserved and returned home for burial.

In actuality, Holmes was building on a tradition that dates back to 4000 B.C. called embalming. Embalming is the process of preparing the body for burial. The word comes from the act of applying spices and perfumed objects to minimize the smell of a decaying body; in essence, it means "to put on balm." Holmes successfully introduced the use of chemicals during the embalming process in the United States to help restore a body to its natural appearance and allow time for transport. Without this chemical process, the only other option for preservation during the mid-1860s was ice.

As such, the Union Army had embalming surgeons out in the field. Families who wanted to see their loved ones one last time would travel to the battlefields to retrieve their family members and take them home.

Today, embalming is a common practice throughout the United States, Canada and Australia [source: Seiple]. But, in this article, before we talk about modern-day embalming, we'll travel back in time to learn about the people who first practiced embalming and explore the interesting materials used by ancient cultures. Then, we'll return to discuss the modern art and science of embalming, a complicated process with known benefits, but not without controversy.

Ancient Egyptians used canopic jars to store vital organs during the embalming process.

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The First Embalmers

Embalming dates back to before 4000 B.C., when the ancient Egyptians wrapped the deceased in cloth and buried them in a mixture of charcoal and sand out of the reach of the Nile River. For the Egyptians, preparing the body for burial aligned with their religious faith and preparation for the afterlife.

The Egyptians believed in immortality and physical resurrection, rising after death and living again. The body needed to be in sound condition so it could attract back the soul, name, shadow and heart of the individual.

It makes sense that the Egyptians are well-known today for their successful embalming practices. After all, it is estimated that by the time they stopped using the practice in the year 700, they had embalmed 730 million people [source: Encarta].

Thanks to a thorough description by Greek historian Herodotus from around 5th century B.C., we're fortunate to have an inside look into the Egyptian embalming process, as follows:

  1. The brain, intestines and vital organs were removed and washed in palm wine. They were then placed in vases filled with herbs known as canopic jars.
  2. The body was filled with a powder made of myrrh and other resins and perfumes before being stitched closed.
  3. The body was then stored in nitre (the name for the chemical compound potassium nitrate) for 70 days.
  4. After the 70 days, the body was washed again, wrapped in bandages and dipped in a gummy substance.
  5. Once complete, the body was placed in a coffin and entombed.

At first, this lengthy process was reserved for members of the royal family only; however, less complicated methods of embalming were available for other people. For example, in one less-expensive procedure the body was injected with cedar oil and stored in nitre for 70 days. Then, the oil was withdrawn along with the fleshy parts of the body; only the skin and bones remained. And for the very poor, the intestines were purged and the body covered in nitre for a shorter period of time.

Although the Egyptians seemed to set the stage for embalming, they were truly just the beginning of widespread use of various embalming practices. So where did embalming spread beyond Egypt? In the next section, we'll take a look at ancient embalming across the globe and find out which cultures used honey, wax and salt in their embalming processes.

Who's Who of Embalming

Considering its extensive history, it comes as no surprise that some quite famous historical figures were embalmed after their deaths. In fact, read on to learn about three of the gentlemen who top the Who's Who of Embalming list:

  • Alexander the Great (born 356 B.C.), the king of Macedonia and conqueror of the Persian Empire, was returned home after his death in a container of honey.
  • Although Christians of the time generally rejected embalming, Charlemagne (born 742 or 747), also known as Charles the Great and the founder of the Holy Roman Empire, was embalmed, dressed and placed in a sitting position inside his tomb.
  • British Admiral Lord Nelson (born 1758), known for his military skills during the wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, was returned from the battle of Trafalgar after his death in a cask of brandy. Just in case you're wondering, his side had won the battle.

Ancient Embalming Across the Globe

The Egyptians may have been trendsetters when it came to embalming, but the practice quickly spread to other ancient cultures. In fact, the Assyrians were known to use honey in embalming, while the Persians used wax. From ancient Africa and Asia, embalming spread to Europe.

In fact, embalming was used by a diverse set of cultures around the world throughout history. Other ancient cultures that appear to have used embalming include:

  • Guanches, aborigines of the Canary Islands -- The Guanches removed the soft internal organs and filled the body cavity with salt and vegetable powders.
  • Jivaro tribes in Ecuador and Peru -- These tribes completed the embalming process of their chiefs by roasting the deceased over a low fire, which they felt helped ensure immortality.
  • Tibetans -- Today, some bodies are still embalmed in Tibet using the ancient practice of placing the body in a large box packed in salt for three months [source: Encyclopedia Britannica]

Despite its popularity, not all ancient cultures followed suit and employed embalming. The Jews, Babylonians and Sumerians rarely used embalming.

Previously, it was believed the Greeks also stayed away from embalming. Recently, though, a Swiss-Greek research team, co-led by Dr. Frank Rühli from the Institute of Anatomy at the University of Zurich, uncovered the body of a 55-year-old woman in northern Greece dating back to the year 300 [source: ScienceDaily]. The team showed that the body was embalmed through the use of resins, oils and spices. It had been thought, from written sources, that just select people were embalmed in Roman Greece -- proof that there is still much to learn about the history of embalming.

Continue reading to learn about innovations in embalming, including which Renaissance scientist paved the way for modern embalming.

What is Taxidermy?

Taxidermy should not be confused with human embalming. In fact, the two are not related. Taxidermy isn't associated with burial. Instead, taxidermy is the science of making lifelike animals from their own skins -- coming as close to the living animal as possible.

Chemical Embalming

Despite a global spread of embalming, its popularity decreased during the European Middle Ages. The process was so costly due to the use of herbs and other expensive materials that even most members of the royal families couldn't afford embalming. There was also a great deal of religious opposition against its practice. These two roadblocks were the main reasons for the pause in embalming during the Middle Ages. Sometimes, though, it takes a pause to enable a large step forward, and such was the case here.

The hiatus in the use of embalming was just a precursor to innovation during the Renaissance. During this time, there was renewed interest in science and the body. In fact, artist, scientist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci developed a method of injection into the veins that would serve as a precursor to advances in chemical embalming.

After da Vinci, some think that the first man to embalm with an actual chemical solution injected in the body was Fredrik Ruysch, a Dutch anatomist, but although we know his name, we don't know much about his methods. Come the 19th century, though, the French and Italians took tremendous strides in embalming with a chemical solution injected directly in the body, enhancing the process because this caused the solution to reach every part of the deceased using the network of blood vessels. During the 19th century, examples of common chemicals used in embalming included arsenic, zinc chloride, copper sulfate, potassium carbonate, aluminum sulfate and bichloride of mercury.

In the United States, necessity spurred the adoption of chemical embalming when Dr. Thomas Holmes introduced chemical embalming out on the battlefields during the Civil War. Since that time, modern-day embalmers have continued to advance the process, establish safeguards for embalmers and transition in chemicals used.

This transition in chemicals is welcome news, as the preservative chemical of choice from about 1880 to 1910, including for Holmes, was arsenic, a toxic chemical element used in wood preservatives and pesticides. Since the deceased of the time were buried in containers that degraded easily, such as wood coffins, in older cemeteries and because arsenic doesn't degrade, the substance may contaminate the soil around these cemeteries. As water moves through the soil, it can take the chemical with it and contaminate the groundwater.

Now that we've covered much of the history behind embalming, let's take a look at the modern-day art and science of embalming.

Embalming Fluid as a Drug

When it comes to crime, it seems no industry is immune, and neither is the funeral industry. Drug users have taken to combining embalming fluid with phencyclidine (PCP), a known hallucinogen, and coating their marijuana cigarettes with the substance. Since just a very tiny amount of PCP causes a high, but it is too difficult to place that amount directly on a cigarette, embalming fluid has become a popular medium for diluting the PCP [source: Dowty]. Unfortunately for addicts, the side effects can be severe. Just a few of the negative effects of inhaling embalming fluid include brain damage, heart attacks, kidney damage, pneumonia and death [KIII TV News].

Modern Process

Modern embalmers are, professionals with an understanding of anatomy, pathology, microbiology, chemistry, cosmetology and restorative art. In the U.S., embalmers must complete a course of education and, in most states, pass licensing requirements before they may begin their career.

According to Jeff Seiple, embalming instructor at Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service, "Licensed embalmers are highly trained to handle human remains and adhere to OSHA's [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] standards for using personal protective equipment [source: Seiple]."

So what is the typical process? First, the funeral home receives the family's permission to embalm, as required by the Federal Trade Commission. Embalming is rarely required by law, with a few exceptions. For example, embalming is required when a body is crossing state lines from Alabama, Alaska and New Jersey. In addition, California, Idaho, Kansas and Minnesota require embalming when a body is shipped by common carrier.

With permission, the embalming process begins. Each case is unique, with different needs for disinfection, preservation and restoration. When asked how long the process takes, Seiple says, "Embalming takes as long as its takes. You must treat each body as an individual case and give it proper time and attention" [source: Seiple].

In general, the process involves these steps:

  1. The body is placed on a table, bathed and cleaned.
  2. Embalming fluid is injected into the arteries via a tube connected to an embalming machine. The fluid is a combination of water and preservative chemical, such as formaldehyde. Because the chemical dehydrates and hardens the tissue, the fluid's presence inside the body works as a preservative by making the deceased an unsuitable host for bacteria and other organisms. This slows the decomposition that would occur without the fluid.
  3. The amount of fluid required through all steps varies based on a case-by-case analysis. On average, an embalmer will need to use 1 gallon (3.8 liters) of embalming solution for every 50 pounds (22.7 kilograms) of body weight [source: Seiple].
  4. The blood is removed from the venous system (the veins).
  5. The vessels are then tied off and the incisions sutured closed.
  6. The internal body cavity is treated by removing liquids and gases and adding the preservative embalming fluid mentioned in step two.
  7. The body is then washed and dressed.
  8. Cosmetics are applied to restore appearance.

During embalming, the embalmer uses techniques to aid in distribution of the fluid and emptying tissues, such as gentle massage. This also clears discolorations, helps stiffness, and keeps the face and hands soft. However, yet again, special training is of paramount importance, as too-aggressive massage can cause dehydration and swelling.

Now that you know the ins and outs of the process, let's explore the pros and cons of embalming.

Green Burials

During a green burial, the deceased is returned to the earth without the use of non-biodegradable toxins or materials, including embalming fluid and metal caskets. The Green Burial Council requires certified cemeteries to participate in conservation activities, restoration and environmental stewardship.

Pros and Cons of Modern Embalming

As with most things in life, there are debatable pros and cons of modern embalming. Common benefits of embalming include allowing time to arrange for the funeral, providing time to arrange for transport of the body and restoring appearance.

Jeff Seiple, embalming instructor at Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service, explains further when he says, "There are three main purposes for embalming -- disinfection, preservation and restoration. Disinfecting the body removes the threat of exposing the general public to bacteria, had the individual passed away from a contagious disease.

"Furthermore, especially in instances of vehicular accidents and chronic disease, embalming is important to the family members. It restores the individual to an acceptable condition and helps provide the family with what is called, a 'positive memory picture.'"

Seiple is describing the family members' final viewing of the individual. A positive experience facilitates the grieving process [source: Seiple].

Those not in favor of embalming generally come from two different groups -- those that refrain from embalming for religious reasons and those with environmental concerns. Orthodox Jews and Muslims don't practice embalming, and Hindus and Buddhists rely on cremation.

Environmentally, the concern of embalming is mainly associated with the use of formaldehyde, which the United States Environmental Protection Agency lists as a probable carcinogen. This is a potential concern for embalmers and requires special training and protective equipment.

The main concern that proponents of other funeral preparation options have is placing formaldehyde in the ground. In fact, each year, in the United States, enough embalming fluid is put in the earth to fill eight Olympic-size swimming pools [source: Sehee]. However, cemeteries are dedicated parcels of land that are generally owned by municipalities or privately held. Moreover, they adhere to strict city, county and/or state regulations [source: Seiple].

Despite the current debate on embalming, there is consensus on one key point, though: When it comes to decisions related to the final resting of family members, families today -- just as in the past -- should know all their options and have the needed time to decide what works best for the deceased and for them and their grieving processes.

For more on embalming and other related subjects, take a look at the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related ArticlesMore Great LinksSources
  • American Society of Embalmers. "The Embalming Process." (Nov. 29, 2011) http://www.amsocembalmers.org/docs/embalming-process.pdf
  • American Society of Embalmers. "Public Perspective." (Nov. 29, 2011) http://www.amsocembalmers.org/html/public.html
  • Dowty, Douglass. "Illegal drug users dip into embalming fluid." The Post-Standard. Aug. 3, 2009. (Nov. 29, 2011) http://www.syracuse.com/news/index.ssf/2009/08/_syracuse_ny_the.html
  • Encyclopedia Brittanica. "Embalming." (Nov. 29, 2011) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/185498/embalming
  • Pocock, Tom. "Horatio Nelson, Viscount Nelson." Encyclopedia Britannica. (Nov. 29, 2011) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/408359/Horatio-Nelson-Viscount-Nelson
  • Funeral Consumers Alliance. "What You Should Know About Embalming." March 1, 2011. (Nov. 29, 2011) http://www.funerals.org/frequently-asked-questions/funeral-arrangements/48-what-you-should-know-about-embalming
  • Green Burial Council. "FAQs and fictions." (Nov. 29, 2011) http://www.greenburialcouncil.org/faqs-fiction/
  • Guardian Funeral Home North City. "Embalming." (Nov. 29, 2011) http://www.funeraldirector.co.nz/embalming.html
  • Haglund, William D. and Sorg, Marcella H. "Forensic Taphonomy: The Postmortem Fate of Human Remains." Boca Raton, Fla.:CRC Press. 1997.
  • HistoryofMacedonia.org. "Alexander the Great Alexander of Macedon Biography: King of Macedonia and Conqueror of the Persian Empire." 2003. (Nov. 29, 2011) http://www.historyofmacedonia.org/AncientMacedonia/AlexandertheGreat.html
  • The Houston Museum of Natural Science. "Plastination." (Nov. 29, 2011) http://web.archive.org/web/20091217100758/http://www.hmns.org/exhibits/special_exhibits/bodyworlds/bodyworlds_plastination.asp
  • Institute for Plastination. "A Life in Science." (Nov. 29, 2011) http://www.bodyworlds.com/en/gunther_von_hagens/life_in_science.html
  • KIII TV News. "A Dead Man's High: Embalming Fluid." Connecting Directors. Aug. 26, 2009. (Nov. 29, 2011) http://www.connectingdirectors.com/articles/185-a-dead-mans-high-embalming-fluid
  • Microsoft Encarta Online Encylopedia. "Embalming." (Nov. 29, 2011) http://web.archive.org/web/20090820222026/http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761576215/Embalming.html
  • National Museum of Funeral History. "Civil War Embalming." (Nov. 29, 2011) http://web.archive.org/web/20101221160124/http://nmfh.org/exhibits/holmes/index.html
  • New World Encyclopedia. "Charlemagne." Oct. 24, 2008 (Nov. 29, 2011) http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Charlemagne
  • Pennsylvania Taxidermist Association. "PTA Officers" (Nov. 29, 2011) http://www.taxidermypa.com/pta_officers.htm
  • Nelson, Dennis, Robinson, Sandra and Lane, Jennie. "Project WET: Water Education for Teachers." Project WET International Foundation and the Council for Envrionmental Education. 1995. (Nov. 29, 2011) http://www.projectwet.org
  • ScienceDaily. "First Indication for Embalming in Roman Greece." July 31, 2008. (Nov. 29, 2011) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/07/080730155631.htm
  • Sehee, Joe. "Green Burial. It's Only Natural." PERC Reports. Property and Environment Research Center. Vol. 25, No. 4. Winter 2007. (Nov. 29, 2011) http://www.perc.org/articles/article1015.php
  • Seiple, Jeff. Instructor of Embalming at Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service. Personal interview conducted Sept. 4, 2009.
  • Van Beck, Todd. "Embalming A to Z: Vibration." International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association. August 2005. (Nov. 29, 2011) http://www.iccfa.com/reading/2000-2009/embalming-z-vibration