Mortal Coil: A brief history of embalming

What do honey, myrrh, alcohol, tar, seed oils, and formaldehyde all have in common? They have all been used, in various forms and combinations, to prevent the decay of the human body after death.

 

For the majority of the 107 billion humans that have lived on this planet, the fate of their mortal remains was limited to a handful of options: cremation on some type of pyre; burial in soil, stone or the sea; or be devoured by scavengers and the wrath of nature.6 At some point, probably around 7-10,000 years ago, humans decided to interfere with the natural process of decomposition.

 

It is not surprising that natural preservation preceded and possibly inspired artificial preservation; many of the locations in which embalming evolved are geographically and climatically conducive to natural mummification. Areas in which dry heat or dry cold, in combination with preservative minerals like cinnabar,  were the primary methods of preservation in cultures in modern-day South America, Africa, China, Tibet and Alaska. Over time, herbs, incense and natural gums and resins were incorporated into the process.1 (This actually sounds quite pleasant, almost like being preserved in a nice, fragrant tea.)

 

The historical purposes of embalming ranged from the spiritual to the pragmatic to the scientific. Ancient Egyptian cultures believed the preservation of the body was crucial to participation in the afterlife.1 (I like to imagine an underworld bouncer, carefully inspecting the quality of your mummification before allowing you to enter.)The transportation of high-ranking corpses during military or other state-related travel also necessitated preservation. Alexander the Great was preserved in a honey-based solution in order to facilitate his transportation from Babylon to Alexandria, a journey of more than 1,100 miles. As late as the beginning of the 19th century, Admiral Lord Nelson was placed in a cask of rum to make the journey from the Mediterranean Sea back to England.3

 

Later, illicit European anatomists would embalm bodies for scientific or artistic study.Leonardo DaVinci, the beloved, grandfatherly painter known for his anatomical studies, was also an expert embalmer. He documented his preservation techniques, which included innovative arterial injections of “embalming fluids ... mixtures made from turpentine, camphor, oil of lavender, vermilion, wine, rosin, sodium nitrate, and potassium nitrate1.” Later, the dawn of chemistry ushered in a series of new preservatives, including dichloride of mercury, zinc chloride, acetate of alumina, and arsenic. To continue on the trend of Italian anatomists, Guiseppe Tranchina was the first to document preservation using only injection without evisceration in the the early 19th century. Later that century, his countryman Alfredo Salafia was the first to use formaldehyde in the preservation process, although it was not widespread and only discovered much later in his notes.

 

In the United States, the embalming industry was created from a desire to preserve the dead for sentimental and aesthetic purposes during the Civil War, when many soldiers travelled hundreds of miles or more to fight and perish for the Union or Confederate Army. Dr. Thomas Holmes, known as the  “father of modern embalming” is said to have performed more than 4,000 embalming procedures during his career2.  In 1869, German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann discovered the application of formaldehyde in anatomical preservation, which quickly became a best practice in European embalming schools, in combination with phenol (also known as carbolic acid-a resin-like substance), glycerine and alcohol in varying proportions. Adverse effects from formaldehyde were noted at this time and included upper respiratory issues, headaches, and eye and skin irritation.

 

Since that time, changes have been made in chemical composition to improve smell, color, and preservation capability, but the primary agent continues to be formaldehyde, or a derivative, formalin, in addition to other chemicals. These chemical cocktails go by various brand names: Flextone. Lyf-Lyk. Suntone. Silitech (by Frigid Fluids). Freeform. Compo Hard. Re-Viva-Tone.

Today’s embalmers are typically well-trained professionals, having to go through an apprenticeship and hours of practice before being certified.9 Also, embalming remains relatively rare in the rest of the world, making it an experience somewhat unique to North America, partially due to the practice of leaving the casket open at wakes and funerals.

 

Future generations will probably look on with horror and incredulity at the fact that, upon death, North Americans of the past two centuries allowed their bodily fluids to be drained and filled with a noxious array of chemicals in order to facilitate a brief, bizarre display for their closest friends and family. That we pay so dearly in economic and environmental costs for for this strange artifice is almost unbelievable. The final indignity to a formerly natural process is that after that brief moment of mourning, our well-preserved corpses are shuttled into the ground where they will sit, ticking time bombs of groundwater and soil contamination.


 

Sources

  1. Brenner E. Human body preservation – old and new techniques. Journal of Anatomy. 2014;224:316-344.http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/joa.12160

  2. Schmoll B. National museum of funeral history, Houston, Texas. The Public Historian. 2003;25(4):108-108+. doi: http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.rit.edu/10.1525/tph.2003.25.4.108.

  3. Montefiore SS. Where the party faithful will celebrate in style: Final 1 edition. Sunday Times. 1997.

  4. Mitford, J. The American Way of Death Revisited. Alfred Knopf. New York. 1998. XV, 43

  5. General Price List. New Comer Funeral Homes. http://www.newcomerrochester.com/Plan-Online/price-list-Rochester.pdf?yr=2016. Published March 1, 2016.

  6. Stephenson W. Do the dead outnumber the living? BBC News Magazine. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-16870579. Published February 4, 2012.

  7. Harris M. Grave Matters: A journey the modern funeral industry to a natural way of burial. New York: Scribner; 2007.

  8. Consumers Union of United States. Funerals, consumers’ last rights: The consumers union report on conventional funerals and burial and some alternatives, including cremation, direct cremation, direct burial, and body donation ; By the editors of consumer reports. New York: W. W. Norton & Company; 1977.

  9. New York State Department of Health. Bureau of funeral directing. New York State Department of Health. http://www.health.ny.gov/professionals/funeral_director/.