How Embalming Works

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.