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.