Embalming is a procedure by which a dead body is preserved to delay the natural decomposition or putrefaction. It is one of the artificial methods of dead body preservation, which has been practiced for ages. The other methods include freezing the bodies at zero degrees centigrade and mummification as practiced in Egypt.

The preservation of a dead body by this process is very effective and long-lasting, as the chemicals (balms or balsams) used in the procedure coagulate the proteins of the tissues of the dead, preventing them from degenerating. This results in the stiffening of the tissues and the body of the deceased remain intact.

The earlier evidence of embalming has been discovered in ancient Egypt probably before 4000 BC, when they used this procedure to preserve the bodies of their loved ones. The world-famous mummies of Egypt are formed by this same process.

Importance of Embalming

The main objective of embalming is to preserve the body of a deceased person. It is not a necessary process for every individual dead person but is used only for a few specific purposes. Some of those reasons are:

  • Medical institutes need dead bodies for academic purposes, where the students learn human anatomy through dissections. Therefore, the dead bodies need to be embalmed for preserving them for a long period.
  • When a deceased person needs to be transferred from one country to another country for funeral rituals, that would take time and the body is vulnerable to decomposition. Therefore, the embaling is used to preserve the body which will prevent decomposition and the intact body is reached to its loved ones.
  • Embalming is also used to preserve the bodies of famous personalities for public view. For example- The late British royal Diana Princess of Wales, Abraham Lincoln, etc.

History of Embalming

The art and technique of embalming are associated with ancient Egypt. The practice of wrapping the dead in cloth and burying them in charcoal and sand was done to preserve the body because of the belief in immortality and resurrection.

The first-ever technique adopted was the removal of vital organs surgically, washing them in palm wine, and placing them in vases called canopy jars which can be filled with herbs. The body cavities will be filled with powder of myrrh, resins, and perfumes. After stitching the incision, the body should be covered with hydrated sodium carbonate until it dried out.

Then it is light-washed, wrapped in cotton bandages, dipped in a gummy substance, and finally coffined and entombed. Apart from the surgical method technique injecting oil of cedar into the body could be used by placing them in potassium nitrate for 70 days.

In Tibet, the body used to be packed and kept in salt for about three months. Babylonians, Sumerians, and Greeks also used to practice superficial kinds of embalming. As time passed the procedure of embalming became expensive and so cerecloths, strips of fabric impregnated with wax, and wrapping them around the body to exclude air were used.

Later Leonardo da Vinci developed the method of venous injection. It is believed that during the 17th century, a Florentine physician was able to turn a corpse into stone by injecting the tissues with a solution of silicate of potash and then immersing the body in a mild solution.

The modern technique of embalming by arterial injection was developed in England during the 18th century by William Harvey. However, Willian Hunter is credited with being the first to report fully on arterial and cavity embalming as a way to preserve bodies for burial.

This practice of embalming became widely accepted and common when it was started to be done by the soldiers of the U.S civil War, to bring back the dead body to their homes.

Process of Embalming

The first step involves the preparation of the body, for which the body is washed in a disinfectant solution, and the limbs are massaged to relieve the stiffening of the joints and muscles. If shaving is required then that is also done.

The next step is the setting of facial features. In this, the eyes are closed using glue or plastic eye caps which will hold the eyelid in place. The lower jaw is secured by wires and sewing. Once the jaw is secured, the mouth can be manipulated into the desired position.

Then comes the surgical practice. If arterial embalming is done then the blood is removed from the body through the veins and is replaced with formaldehyde-based chemicals through the arteries. The solution used for embalming might contain glutaraldehyde, methanol, ethanol, phenol, water, and dyes.

For cavity embalming, a small incision is made in the lower part of the deceased’s abdomen and a trocar is inserted. The organs in the chest cavity and the abdomen are punctured and drained of gas and fluid contents and then a chemical based on formaldehyde is injected.

The made incision is finally sutured. Nowadays there is a method known as green embalming which limits the use of chemicals and replaces it with biodegradable, non-hazardous oils. 

Methods of Embalming: Ancient and Modern

In ancient times, especially in Egypt, the dead bodies were embalmed by the following process:

  • The brain and all other internal organs except for the heart were taken out of the body and kept in canopic jars. The Egyptians believed that all thoughts and memories are saved in the heart, therefore they should not be detached from the body.
  • The hollow body was then covered with Natron (a salty substance) and dried for 40 days.
  • Later the body was filled with sawdust to give it a stiff and lively appearance. After this the whole body is bathed with wine and spices, followed by wrapping it with linen and left for 30 days.
  • After 30 days the body gets mummified, which is kept in a mummy case, followed by a coffin, and later buried in a sarcophagus.

Modern methods of embalming are practiced all over the world. Here the experts use a variety of chemicals to preserve the dead body. There are usually four steps involved in the modern embalming method, as discussed below:

  • Arterial Embalming– The whole blood is first drained out from the body through the right jugular vein. Then the embalming fluid is injected into the body through the right common carotid artery, with the help of an embalming machine. After the injections, the embalmer massages the cadaver to ensure that the embalming fluid reaches every blood vessel.
  • Cavity Embalming– The body cavities are emptied via suction and then filled with the embalming fluid using a trocar and aspirator.
  • Hypodermic Embalming– The embalm is injected into the skin.
  • Surface Embalming– This process includes the remaining areas of the outer body like the wounds or injuries which are hidden by embalming.

What Makes an Embalm?

  1. Preservative– The preservatives restrict the growth of saprophytic microorganisms in the dead body and delay the process of decomposition. Examples- Formalin, methanol, phenol, etc.
  2. Germicide– The germs or microorganisms present on the dead body are killed by these agents. Example- Phenol and its derivatives, glutaraldehyde, etc.
  3. Buffers– The buffers control the activity of the preservatives and maintain the pH for the reactions. Examples- Sodium borate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium carbonate, magnesium carbonate, etc.
  4. Wetting Agents– They are also known as humectants that keep the tissues hydrated. Examples- Glycerin, glycols, sorbitol, sodium lauryl sulfate, etc.
  5. Anticoagulants– These agents retards the decomposition of the blood. Examples- Sodium citrate, sodium oxalate, etc.
  6. Dyes– Dyes give a particular color to the embalming solution. Examples- Eosin, ponceau, etc.,
  7. Vehicles(diluents)– These agents provide a vehicular medium for the embalms to reach every corner of the body. Examples- Water, glycerin, sorbitol, alcohol, etc.,
  8. Perfuming Agents (deodorants): The embalming fluids or solutions impart a raw or foul smell that can be masked by using the perfuming agents. Examples- Methyl salicylates, Clove oil, Benzaldehydes, etc.

Medicolegal Importance of Embalming

Embalming should never be allowed before a medicolegal autopsy as it may induce artifact and poses difficulty in interpreting the findings.

  • Embalming before the autopsy makes a person liable to the Indian Penal Code section 201 for causing the disappearance of evidence. Also, any disrespect conducted to the dead body is punishable under IPC section 297.
  • Embalming provides chemical stiffening similar to rigor mortis that makes it difficult to estimate the post-mortem interval,
  • As embalming alters the appearance of the body, it is difficult to interpret the various injuries on the body,
  • The embalming process destroys various poisons such as cyanide, alcohol, opiates, and carbon monoxide which makes the toxicological analysis useless or difficult. Therefore, it is advised to perform the toxicological analysis before embalming the body,
  • The embalming procedure kills bacteria and other microorganisms, so bacteriological evaluation becomes useless.
  • The process of embalming drains out the blood from the body therefore blood analysis cannot be carried out.
  • The dimensions of wounds may be modified by the embalmer while introducing embalming fluid through them or new wounds may be produced due to the use of a torcher for injecting embalming fluid.

Final Words

Embalming is the process of preserving dead bodies using various chemicals for various purposes. It retards the process of decomposition and the dead body remains intact for a long period. It is usually practiced for academic reasons or by some people who want their loved ones to remain as it is even after death (The Mummies of Egypt).

With the advancement in the field of science, various developments have been marked in the embalming procedure. The embalming procedures are hazardous in nature as any dead person infected with any chronic and infectious diseases such as tuberculosis or HIV/AIDS, may infect the embalmer. Also, it has disadvantages in the medicolegal analysis as discussed above.

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Frequently Asked Questions

1. How Long Can a Body Last With Embalming?

Embalming is not a permanent procedure to preserve the dead body. It only delays the natural processes of decomposition depending on the temperature, condition of the body, etc.

2. Which Countries Embalm Their Dead?

Countries like the USA, Canada, New Zealand, etc. still use embalming in almost all burials to preserve the body for longer time.

3. Is The Brain Removed During Embalming?

No, all organs remain in the body during the embalming process.


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