Embalming is a mortuary custom, the art of preserving bodies after death, generally by the use of chemical substances. It is believed to have originated among the Egyptians, probably before 4000 BC, and was used by them for more than 30 centuries. Much evidence demonstrates that embalming is religious in origin, conceived as a means of preparing the dead for the life after death.
From the Egyptians, the practice of embalming spread to other ancient peoples, including the Assyrians, Jews, Persians, and Scythians. Ancient embalming methods consisted of removal of the brains and viscera, and the filling of bodily cavities with a mixture of balsamic herbs and other substances. The Egyptians immersed the body in carbonate of soda, injected the arteries and veins with balsams, filled the cavities of the torso with bituminous and aromatic substances and salt, and wound cloths saturated with similar materials around the body. The Assyrians used honey in embalming, the Persians used wax, and the Jews used spices and aloes. Alexander the Great was embalmed with honey and wax.
The Egyptians were particularly adept at embalming; the soles of the feet of mummies, when unwrapped after as much as 3000 years, are often still soft and elastic. Historians estimate that by AD 700, when the practice had died out among them, the Egyptians had embalmed approximately 730 million bodies. Although many were destroyed or disintegrated in the tropical heat of northern Africa, a large number of mummies were preserved; archaeologists estimate that several million are still preserved in undiscovered tombs and burial places.
From the ancient peoples of Africa and Asia, embalming spread to Europe, where, in time, it became a widespread practice. Descriptions of methods used in Europe for almost 1200 years, from about AD 500, have been preserved in the writings of contemporary physicians. Embalming during the Middle Ages included evisceration, immersion of the body in alcohol, insertion of preservative herbs into incisions previously made in the fleshy parts of the body, and wrapping the body in tarred or waxed sheets. The Danish king of England, Canute II, was embalmed by the above, or similar methods, as were the English monarchs William the Conqueror and Edward I. William’s body was found well preserved in the French city of Caen in the 16th century; Edward’s was also found to be well preserved when it was disinterred in Westminster Abbey in 1700; and Canute’s body was still in a state of good preservation when it was discovered in Winchester Cathedral in 1776.
The first man to embalm by injecting a prepared preservative chemical solution into the blood vessels is believed to be the Dutch anatomist Fredrik Ruysch, but his technique is unknown. During the 19th century, French and Italian scientists perfected such techniques, thereby enabling them to reach every part of the cadaver. Modern embalming is believed to have begun in the U.S. during the American Civil War.
The essential purposes of modern embalming are preservation of the body to permit burial without unseemly haste and prevention of the spread of infection both before and after burial. Cosmetic work is used to restore injured facial features or for aesthetic reasons. Embalming methods now consist essentially of the removal of all blood and gases from the body and the insertion of a disinfecting fluid; the viscera are removed and immersed in an embalming fluid and are then replaced in the body, in which they are surrounded with a preservative powder. Most corpses in the United States and Canada are embalmed, and the practice is widespread in other countries.