We’re often asked the question: How does embalming work? Embalming is the most-common method of preserving and sanitizing the deceased. Embalming entails injecting an antiseptic preservative through the circulatory system. Embalming maintains the appearance of a body so it can be publicly displayed at a funeral or memorial service.
The goals of embalming include:
- Presentation a.k.a. restoration
The history of embalming
Long before modern embalming techniques, the practice of preserving human remains had a complex history containing a mixture of culture, art and science. For centuries, preserving the body of the deceased has practical and religious motives. Some societies looked to preserve the bodies so they would appear as heroic in death as they did in life. Techniques included pickling the bodies of deceased or preserving them in spirits. The original English definition for embalming was “to put on balm,” though we think of embalming much differently today.
The first archaeological evidence of the preservation of human remains goes back to ancient Egypt. Between 6,000 BC and 600 AD, an elaborate process of mummification was practiced based on religious beliefs that the soul would eventually return to the preserved mummy. Ancient Egyptian embalmings removed all internal organs and blood, leaving the body cavity to be filled with natural materials.
Several ancient Andean cultures in Chile and Peru also practiced mummification, and several mummies were found 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, they often preserved their dead by placing them in jars of honey.
Europe in the Middle Ages
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. 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 did not survive his death.
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. This replaced the previous arsenic- and alcohol-based techniques.
Modern embalming techniques provide an opportunity for mourners to publicly view the body of the deceased, which is generally accepted as an important part of the grieving process. Although there are exceptions embalming is generally a legal requirement in order to repatriate human remains when someone dies abroad.
A modern embalmer trains in mortuary science, including anatomy, thanatology, chemistry and embalming theory. In most states, a final practical examination and professional licensure is required before practicing embalming.
Embalming is not required for cremated bodies. In fact, bodies for burial do not have to be embalmed. However, in the state of New Hampshire, if bodies are displayed such as in a wake setting, embalming is required.