Weird History

The Gnarly History of How Embalming Came To Dominate The Dead

Embalming has a long history and, once Civil War-era surgeons and undertakers began to use chemicals rather than simply keeping bodies on ice, it caught on quickly in the US. Prior to the American Civil War, embalming in the US was a practice reserved for medical researchers and professionals or, occasionally, the extremely wealthy. With all of the death, decay, and distance during the Civil War, preserving bodies became desirable, practical, and ultimately a lucrative business. Civil War undertakers had a booming business on their hands.

After the War, embalmers began to prepare bodies with all kinds of diseases and injuries, preserving them for mourners who could look at their deceased loved ones and get closure. The history of embalming in America is a strange one, yet the ritual of embalming ended up becoming as common as death itself.

  • Ancient Egyptians Embalmed Their Dead For Religious Reasons

    The best-known embalmers of the ancient world were the Egyptians. Embalming and mummification in Egypt were religious practices meant to preserve a body for the afterlife. In Egypt, embalming and mummification took 70 days and included several steps to remove all moisture from the body.

    Priests removed organs - the heart remained in the body, however - before covering and packing the body with natron salt. Once the body was dry, it was washed and mummified.  One of the perks of using natron was that it allowed the body to look incredibly life-like in its dried-out state. The body was then wrapped in linen with charms and placed in a coffin.

  • South American, Ethiopian, And Tibetan Societies All Embalmed Their Dead, Too

    In ancient Peru and Chile, bodies were embalmed and mummified with similar techniques and for similar reasons as the Egyptians. Organs were removed, the flesh and skin were stripped, and the body was covered with hot ash. The body was molded to look as life-like as possible using twigs and reeds and the skin was reapplied. In Assyria, and Persia, honey and wax were used. Ethiopian, Nigerian, and Canary Island societies used alcohol, potash, and herb leaves. In Tibet, to this day, bodies are still placed into large salt-filled containers for months to remove all moisture.

  • Researchers In Europe Experimented With Embalming Chemicals

    In Medieval and Renaissance Europe, medical practitioners began embalming bodies for scientific purposes like dissection. They used information from ancient texts and modeled their methods on the Egyptians. Unlike their ancient predecessors, however, there was no religious purpose for embalming. It was purely a scientific endeavor.

    During the 17th century, it became common to inject wax, oil, or other chemicals into a body for preservation. Dutch and French practitioners developed embalming fluids made out of materials ranging from "clotted pig's blood, Berlin blue and mercury oxide." Advancements in arterial injections during the 18th and early 19th centuries by French, Italian, and British scientists allowed for every part of a body to be preserved with embalming liquid, often made of turpentine, alcohol, zinc chloride, or mercury. In 1838, Jean Gannal, a French chemist, developed a method of embalming by injecting arsenic into the carotid artery.

  • The First Embalming Practices Were As Deadly For The Embalmers As Their Clients

    The chemicals used in early embalming fluids were often toxic and caused medical side effects to the embalmers themselves. Often practitioners or medical students working with cadavers became ill or died from working with embalming solutions. Arsenic poisoning was particularly common.