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The History of Embalming

For as long as history has been recorded, members of society have cared for their dead. Funeral rites are as old as humanity itself. Every culture and civilization have attended to the proper care of their dead. The ancient Egyptians, credited with the earliest preservation techniques, used mummification to preserve their dead. Various groups used mummification and other techniques of preservation throughout history. Modern embalming is often credited to Dr. Thomas Holmes and became popular during the American Civil War.

The Ancient Egyptians- Mummification

Mummification was a crude method to preserve a body. Often based upon the wealth of the deceased, there process ranged anywhere from 3-5 steps. The cheapest option, reserved for the poor, simply included cleansing the belly, letting the body rest in a natron (mineral salt) treatment for seventy days, and returning the body to the family. The costliest process included five steps, many involving the use of expensive spices to help with preservation. No matter the situation, the skill of these Egyptian embalmers cannot be diminished. Thousands of years later, modern archaeologists have discovered mummified remains with recognizable features such as scars, hair and tattoos.

The mummification process depicted in ancient drawings.

China’s Han Dynasty- Mummification and Embalming

Well not as well known for their preservation customs, China had what seemed to be an intricate process as well. In 1971 a mummified woman, known as Lady Dai was discovered with her hair intact, skin still soft, and ligaments that would still bend. Lady Dai was discovered in an airtight tomb, nearly 40 feet underground. She was in the smallest of 4 pine boxes, each nestled into the other, and wrapped in layers of silk. Most notably, she was found submerged in gallons of an unknown liquid, which later tested to be slightly acidic and containing magnesium. The tomb itself was lined with soil and charcoal to absorb moisture and sealed with clay. It’s difficult to say which aspect kept her body so pristine, but Lady Dai remains one of the best-preserved corpses in history.

Lady Dai as she appears today.

Europe’s “Dark Ages”- Medical Preservation

In Europe, embalming was not typically practiced. The dominant religious of Christianity and Judaism did not see the same spiritual significance to preservation after death. Burials were done quickly after death, so the preservation was unnecessary. Despite this, many medical advancements were made during this time, leading historians, and others to believe that some type of medical preservation was taking place. Leonardo Da Vinci is thought to have used some type of embalming which allowed him to produce his hundreds of anatomical plates and detailed sketches. Interest in embalming continued to grow in Europe as the discovery of arterial injection and formaldehyde and was first offered to the public is France by Jean Gannal.

A sample of Leonardo Da Vinci's anatomical sketches.

American Civil War- Embalming

Dr. Thomas Holmes is credited as the “Father of Modern Embalming”. During the Civil War, families wanted their loved ones who died in battle to be returned to them for burial. This posed a problem as there was no option to refrigerate for transport. This is where Holmes came in. After the successful embalming of Colonel Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth, Dr. Holmes was commissioned to perform embalming of fallen Union officers to be able to return them to their families. Others followed in Holmes’s footsteps and embalmers during this time were often untrained and held other full-time jobs.

Embalming on the battlefield.

Twentieth Century America- Embalming

Modern methods have since replaced the unrefined embalming of Civil War soldiers, with formaldehyde replacing arsenic and trained funeral directors replacing surgeons. Today, the act of embalming is an art that allows for the temporary preservation of the dead human body. Today’s less invasive methods and quality of product allow for the disinfection, preservation and sometimes, restoration of the body. Modern embalming is widely accepted in the funeral industry and often and important aspect to funeral planning.

An example of a modern embalming room.

As you can see, the act of preserving the dead is a time-honored tradition. Some cultures derive the need for preservation from their religious beliefs, while others used the processes for medical advancements and necessity. Modern embalming has allowed for thousands of families and friends to see their loved ones in a peaceful setting after death. No matter the reason, the act of preservation and preparation after death is not one that seems to be slowing anytime soon. What do you think? What questions do you have about embalming or past preservation techniques?



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Zoltan Prohaszka
Zoltan Prohaszka
Jul 07, 2021

It was very interesting! I just learned something new again! Thanks FD Mel!

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