Embalming: A Brief Breakdown

White coffin with pink sympathy flowers

It is a standard practice in the United States to embalm our dead. The preservation of cadavers allows us to hold open-casket funerals days or even weeks after death occurs. The embalming process has a fascinating history that goes back all the way to ancient civilizations and mummification. In this post we’ll explore the embalming process and the origins of this widely accepted tradition.

 

 

 

Why do we embalm cadavers?

Embalming has three main goals: sanitation, preservation, and presentation. Embalming a body restores it to a more life-like appearance and resists the decomposition process that naturally breaks down the tissue and cells of organic materials. Embalming is not just used on bodies that are to be seen during a wake or viewing. In fact, most cadavers in the United States are embalmed, even if they are not participating in an open-casket service. Embalming is also used for medical and scientific education and instruction.

What is embalming fluid?

Embalming fluid is made of formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, methanol, and other solvents. Formaldehyde is present as a dissolved gas in the water-based solution called formalin, and formalin is used during embalming processes as a disinfectant and preservative. It is used as an injection fluid in arterial and cavity embalming. Pre-injection chemicals break up clots and condition vessels. Co-injection chemicals restore dehydrated tissues and fight edema (too much fluid in the tissues). The most important chemical, the arterial fluid, is made up of preservatives, germicides, anticoagulants, dyes, and perfume. The embalmer must inject about 1 gallon of fluid for every 50 pounds of body weight. A typical gallon of fluid might be made up of 1 bottle of arterial fluid, 1 bottle of co-injection fluid, 1 bottle of water corrective, and enough water to complete the gallon. This recipe changes depending on the condition of the body.

When did humans start embalming their dead?

Archeological evidence shows us that the early civilizations of South America preserved bodies as early as 5000-6000 B.C.E. The Ancient Egyptians are probably the most famous culture that participated in mummification as early as 3200 B.C.E. Highly revered priests were tasked with embalming and preservation of corpses often buried in tombs with their valued possessions. Embalming was not commonly practiced in Europe until the time of the Roman Empire, and it became widespread by 500 C.E. During the Renaissance period, scientists and anatomists experimented with different preservation techniques, including the first attempts at using the vascular system for embalming.

Modern embalming as we know it today really began with the demands for cadaver preservation in the 19th century. The increased ease of travel and the amplified awareness of disease created opportunities for scientists to find ways for bodies to be buried days after they began to decompose. One lord, who was killed during the Battle of Trafalgar, was preserved in brandy and wine mixed with camphor and myrrh for over two months. At the time of his funeral in 1805, his body was found to be completely plastic but very well preserved! Embalming really caught on during the American Civil War, but it wasn’t until German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann discovered formaldehyde that the excellent embalming techniques we still use today were initiated and perfected.

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