Forensic Medicine
History, Process and Medicolegal Aspects of Embalming

History, Process and Medicolegal Aspects of Embalming

Embalming is the procedure or the treatment done on a dead body using antiseptics and preservatives to prevent putrefaction thus preserving the body. This process will result in the coagulation of proteins, fixation of tissues, organs get bleached and hardened and blood is converted into a brownish mass. It will cause a chemical stiffening similar to rigor mortis but the actual rigor mortis will not develop. This developed rigidity is permanent and the decomposition can be inhibited for several months.

Embalming is done in medical schools to preserve dead bodies for education and dissection, or when the body has to be taken from one place to another like across countries, states for last rituals when transit time required would be more so that decomposition does not occur. It is done by injecting the embalming fluid into the body.

It alters the appearance of the body, tissue, and organs, making it difficult to interpret the presence of any disease or injury. It destroys any kind of toxins and poisons like cyanide, alcohol, alkaloids, organic poisons. Blood grouping cannot be done after the body is embalmed. The process should be completed within six hours after death.

The composition of embalming fluid includes Formalin/methanol/phenol as a preservative, phenol and its derivatives or glutaraldehyde as a germicide, dyes like eosin or ponceau, and perfuming agents like methyl salicylates, oil of clove. Water, glycerin, sorbitol, alcohol can be used as diluents, and sodium citrate/Sodium oxalate is used as the anticoagulant. Sodium borate/Sodium bicarbonate/Sodium carbonate/Magnesium carbonate acts as the buffer. The wetting agents used can be glycerin, glycols, sorbitol, sodium lauryl sulfate. 

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 the 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 the 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 on 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, 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 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. 

Medicolegal Aspects of Embalming

  • Embalming provides chemical stiffening which is similar to rigor mortis and hence estimation of time since death is difficult.
  • It alters the appearance of the body and so injuries if present, cannot be interpreted.
  • The embalming procedure kills bacteria so bacteriologic evaluation becomes useless.
  • Blood groups cannot be made out after embalming is done.
  • Embalming destroys the presence of any chemicals or toxins/poisons like cyanide, alcohol, opiates, carbon monoxide, and thus toxicological evidence will not be available and hence its analysis will be useless.
  • If the embalming fluid is injected via an already existing wound, then the dimension of the wound may get modified or a new wound may be produced due to the use of a trocar for injecting the embalming fluid. 

Final Words

Embalming is a procedure done to preserve the body for a longer duration especially if the body has to be transported. It should be done after conducting the autopsy as it may induce artifacts and pose difficulty in interpreting the findings. Consent from the next of kin has to be taken before the procedure. A death certificate should be referred before embalming. 

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