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The History of Embalming

The modern definition of the word ‘embalming’ is defined as temporarily preserving human remains to delay decomposition and maintain the appearance of the body so it can be publicly displayed at a funeral (or other type of memorial service).

There are three goals in embalming:
1) Sanitization
2) presentation (sometimes referred to as restoration)
3) preservation

Long before modern embalming techniques were used, the practice of preserving human remains had a very long, complex history containing a mixture of culture, art and science.

Mummification
The first evidence of the preservation of human remains that exists in the archaeological record is in ancient Egypt, where during the period 6,000 BC to approximately 600 AD, an elaborate process of mummification was practiced because of religious beliefs that the soul would eventually return to the preserved mummy. Several ancient Andean cultures in Chile and Peru also practiced mummification, and several mummies have also been discovered preserved in glacial ice in Russian and Greenland as well. In China, many well-preserved bodies from the Han Dynasty have been discovered, preserved in ideal temperature and humidity levels. In Babylon, Persia, and Syria, many preserved their dead by placing them in jars of honey.

Middle Age Europe
During the Renaissance period in Europe, anatomists (including Leonardo DaVinci) who wished to preserve their specimens began to develop and use chemical compounds to delay decomposition, but the first practice of arterial embalming is attributed to the Netherlands in the 17th century. A physician named Frederik Ruysh developed a preservative called liquor balsamicum, but his methods were not widely used and as such did not survive his death.

Contemporary Embalming Methods
During the American Civil War, Northern soldiers were dying on Southern battlefields, and families wanted their fathers, husbands, and sons prepared for burial at home. In 1867, formaldehyde was discovered by two European chemists, Alexander Butlerov and August Wilhelm von Hofmann, which replaced the previously arsenic- and alcohol-based techniques.

Modern embalming techniques provide an opportunity for mourners to publicly view the body of the deceased, which is a generally accepted as an important part of the grieving process. Although there are exceptions, generally speaking, embalming is a legal requirement in order to repatriate human remains when someone dies abroad.

A modern embalmer has been trained in mortuary science, including anatomy, thanatology, chemistry, and embalming theory, and in most of the United States, passes a final practical examination and obtains professional licensure before they may practice embalming.

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