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June 12, 2019 Beyond The Dash

What is Embalming?

Why and how we restore the dead

What is Embalming?
Illustration depicting the embalming of a body by ancient Egyptians..Source: Ridpath, John Clark Cyclopedia of Universal History (Volume 1) (Cincinnati, OH: The Jones Brothers Publishing CO., 1885/Getty Images)

Embalming is an ancient practice that stalls the natural decomposition of a dead body. Modern embalmers have the practice down to an art, but restoring and preserving the dead has been an imperative part of handling bodies for thousands of years.

In general, there are two reasons for embalming: preservation and restoration. Today, embalming is mainly done to prepare a body for a viewing ceremony. In some cases, the restoration can even make the body of the deceased appear alive.

The first embalmings

Modern embalming techniques mean bodies can be restored to near-lifelike condition. But what were embalming techniques of the past like?

Although you might think of Egyptian mummies as the first embalmed corpses, the first mummies did not originate there. Embalming originates all the way back to approximately 5000-6000 BC in South American Chinchorro culture, found in the region of what we now think of as northern Chile. Prior to this, mummies only occurred naturally due to environment and circumstances, but the Chinchorro mummies were the first instances of artificially mummified human remains. Bodies were dressed lavishly and paraded through festivals to be worshipped.

Approximately 3000 years later, Egyptians significantly advanced mummification techniques by removing organs and draining fluids in order to preserve their dead. These processes could take months, but the result was preserved bodies that could potentially last tens of thousands of years.

Over time, embalming moved beyond mummification to include chemicals, makeup, prosthetics and surgery.

What is the goal of embalming?

Many people find the idea of preserving a corpse to be strange. Some believe that bodies should be laid to rest without delay. Others believe viewing a loved one's body might ruin their final recollection of them. And still others object to the potential environmental impact of burning or burying a body that has undergone the process of embalming.

Despite these possible misgivings, many people find a great deal of solace in being able to view their loved one a final time. Embalming affords mourners a last chance to see their loved one. There can also be religious reasons for wanting a viewing ceremony before laying a loved one to rest. Some people request to be embalmed after they die in order to be seen in a good condition one more time. Regardless of the reasons for choosing this type of service, it's undeniable that embalmers bring comfort to both the living and the dead through the skilled work that they do.

The ultimate goal of embalming is to restore the deceased person to the same or similar appearance as they had in life. That often means the mortician in charge will compare their work to the most current photograph of the person in order to produce results

What is involved in a modern embalming?

There are two main steps in an embalming: Surgical and Cosmetic.

1. Surgical embalming

The surgical stage of embalming actually includes four separate steps: preparation, facial setting, arterial embalming, and cavity embalming.

During the preparation step, the attending mortician will wash the body in a disinfectant and massage the limbs to ease any stiffening in the muscles and joints. They will then set the facial expression manually (this is known as facial setting). Tools such as glue, wires, and sewing supplies will be used to ensure the face is set correctly, and permanently. These measures prevent the body from changing shape before (or during) the service.

Arterial embalming involves removal of the blood from the body, and replacing this fluid with a formaldehyde-based solution that will help preserve the body from further decay.

Cavity embalming begins with a small incision at the bottom of the deceased person's abdomen. After releasing gases and fluids from the organs and replacing these with more preserving chemicals, the body is sutured, and the surgical phase of embalming is complete.

2. Cosmetic embalming

Once the body is chemically preserved and prepared, final touches are made using cosmetics. The deceased person's hair will be washed and styled to look the way it was in life. Makeup us used to restore skin tones, and give the appearance of life.

Morticians are able to use prosthetics and other tools to make a body whole again as well. They use these tools to hide any physical damage to the body. Modern embalming techniques are now so advanced, that even those who have obvious injuries can be restored to near-lifelike condition.

Finally, the body is dressed in an outfit of their family's choosing, and places in the casket for display.

The takeaway

It can be unpleasant to know the exact details of what occurs in an embalming. Thankfully, for many, embalmers take these tasks on in order to preserve memories of the dead. For people who seek comfort in a final moment with their loved one, the work of an embalmer is a priceless gift.

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