Embalmed MummyWith environmental concerns and influences from the death positivity movement, people are rethinking how they prepare for their final moments. Once taken for granted in American funerary practices, embalming is now getting a second look from both laypeople and death care professionals. We’ve embalmed our dead for centuries, but the technologies used have changed significantly over time. Learning about this process reveals some fascinating insights about how we treat our dead, both in the past and today.

Roots in Ancient Egypt

The Encyclopedia Britannica mentions that some South American and Asian societies embalmed their dead, but we’re most familiar with its development in ancient Egypt. These regions’ dry soils and arid climates were beneficial, thanks to lower moisture levels that would have interfered with the process. Earlier Egyptian methods included wrapping bodies in cloth and burying them in dry charcoal and sand.

As Kemetic religious and afterlife beliefs became more complex, embalming became more sophisticated. Preserving the body’s appearance was a primary goal, so expertly trained embalmers were required. For royal burials, these professionals would remove vital organs such as the intestines and brain and wash them in palm wine. Next, they’d place these organs in herb-filled jars before stuffing each body’s cavities with resins, myrrh, and other kinds of perfumes. The final steps included stitching the original incisions, drying the corpse out using hydrated sodium carbonate, then wrapping it in cotton bandages. Once it had been covered in a sticky preservative, the corpse was placed in a coffin inside one of the royal tombs.

Just as in later times, status and wealth dictated how the dead were buried. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes less expensive methods, such as injecting bodies with oil of cedar or simply removing the intestines. In both cases, the corpses were dried with potassium nitrate.

Medieval, Renaissance, and Enlightenment Europe

Funeral Guide explains that embalming wasn’t as popular in later times. While the three major Abrahamic religions didn’t make body preservation a priority, the corpses of some Crusaders who’d died abroad were studied to better understand how embalming worked. Scholars such as Leonardo da Vinci embalmed bodies for scientific and medical studies. Later scientists improved on medieval methods, and by the 1700s, embalming services were available to the public. Among the first to offer them was William Hunter, a Scottish surgeon, and his brother John Hunter.

A President’s Death Popularizes Embalming in America

In April 1865, most of the United States mourned the death of President Abraham Lincoln. Besides thrusting the country into an uncertain future, his demise prompted another development: the popularity of embalming. Smithsonian Magazine reveals that most memorials were held at home before the 1860s, with family members washing and dressing the body of their dead before burial.

The Civil War upended that tradition. With soldiers dying far away, families asked for their bodies to be shipped back home. Doctors had to preserve the bodies for transport through high heat and humidity. The first American embalming techniques used arsenic or mercury until they eventually moved on to formaldehyde. But it was Lincoln’s death that brought embalming to the forefront: His lifelike appearance during the funeral procession impressed many mourners. The following decades saw fewer home funerals, the rise of funeral homes, and a regulated death care industry.

New Options in the 21st Century

Embalming is still common in modern times, but it’s slowly giving way to other options. Statistics from the Cremation Association of North America show the number of American cremations growing by about 1.5% each year. Natural burials are also growing in popularity, which allow bodies to naturally decompose in biodegradable coffins.

Will embalming completely die out? It may be too soon to tell, but one thing’s clear: People are giving much more thought to how they want to be laid to rest and memorialized.

Category: Funeral

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