The History of Embalming

 I asked my dad once who invented embalming and you probably guessed it; it was the Egyptians. Everyone knows about the mummies. They were the first culture to believe in the immortality of the soul, and that the soul would never completely leave the body if the body was kept intact. The Egyptians who performed embalming were members of the priesthood and there were 3 different methods that were based on the wealth of the dead person.

The most expensive method included five steps and would cost about $2000 today, which by today’s standards is still inexpensive, because the average cost of a funeral today is about $6000.

The first thing they did was remove the brain and pack the skull with resin. The next step was to remove the organs, which were washed and mixed with spices and resin and put back in the body, or were put in a separate burial vase, similar to an urn. Next, they would soak the body in natron, which is basically a mixture of salt and baking soda, for 20-70 days. Even though this would cause the finger and toe nails to come off, the Egyptians would somehow replace them, because the body had to be intact for 3,000 years so the soul could complete the “circle of necessity.” This was some weird requirement that the Egyptians believed the soul had to take, and on completion, the body would rise from the dead and the live with the gods forever. Where did they get that dumb idea?

After they soaked the body, they would clean it and allow it to dehydrate in the sun. Historians believe that the climate in Egypt was a big factor in the success of their embalming because it’s so hot and dry. Hot and dry? Maybe they should start burying people in the Valley. Next, they wrapped it with about 1200 yards of bandage and held it together with gum or glue. The body was then put in a sarcophagus and returned to the family. A sarcophagus is like a casket, like the thing that King Tut was in.

Fun Fact: Necropolis (which means “City of the Dead”), was a walled suburb, was where all death-related activities took place. The coffin makers and embalmers lived here and it was where the crypts and tombs were located.

Some people like the Persians, Babylonians and Syrians would preserve their dead in jars with honey or wax, which prevented decomposition by depriving the body bacteria of air. The Greeks had a very bizarre custom. They believed that the dead made a journey across the river Styx to the land of eternity (could this be where that horrible band got its name?) They would put a coin in the dead person’s mouth to pay passage across the river (okay, that’s just like a toll booth), and a cake of honey was put next to the dead person to appease Cerebus, the three-headed dog who guarded the entrance to Hades, wherever the hell that is. It sounds like the Greeks were dropping acid if you ask me.  A three-headed dog?

Greeks do drugs...

The Romans didn’t really embalm anyone. A group of slaves would wash the body with hot water and oil for 7 days, and funeral processions were held at night by a “designator,” comparable to a modern day funeral director. Eventually cremation came into play, but at one time, cremation was forbidden in Rome because of the smoke pollutions that was caused by burning so many bodies at once. Imagine the smell of Rome!

The Jews generally did not allow embalming or cremation because it was seen as mutilation of the body.  Preparation for the burial consisted of the application of oils and spices, and then the body was wrapped.

Here are some pioneers in embalming:

Dr. Frederick Ruysch (1665-1717) is generally considered the father of enbalming with his discovery of the first successful system of arterial enbalming.

Alexander Butlerov (1828-1866) and Wilhelm von Hofmann (1818-1892) are credited with the discovery of formaldehyde. 

Dr. Thomas Holmes (1817-1900) is generally considered the father of modern enbalming. He experimented with preservative chemicals while working as a coroners assistant in New York and later began offering his services to the public.

At the turn of the twentieth century, coffins were made by cabinet makers, and removals were done by the livery man. Eventually, the cabinet makers and livery men started to manage or “undertake” the funeral details and became known as the “undertaker.” This person eventually provided all the necessary things for the funeral, and once the undertaker was able to provide embalming services, the burial process was given more time for preparation and arrangements. Today there are over 100 services a funeral director can provide.

“In modern embalming, a fluid that is both a disinfectant and a preservative is injected into the circulatory system of the body by an electric pump while the blood is forced out of the body and disposed of. In effect, the blood is replaced with a disinfectant and preservative solution.

Today embalming is done for three reasons: disinfection, preservation and restoration. Returning the body to a life-like state, and viewing the body after death has proven psychological worth because it offers a sense of closure to the loved ones.”

Well, I hoped you enjoyed the little history lesson. So, will you be embalmed or cremated? Have you thought about your funeral? You know I have. I think I want a viewing followed by cremation…but only if they can make me look good, and since I won’t be there to supervise, maybe I’ll just go straight to cremation. What I would really like is to be embalmed in a sitting position, be propped up in a chair with a drink in my dead hand so I could be part of my going away party. Doesn’t that sound more fun?

Have a nice day… 🙂

Source: Wyoming Funeral Director’s Association

About Death To Hollywood

My name is Celeste Donohue and I am a writer/comedian who started this blog to tell stories about my life growing up in a funeral home and my adult life which I have spent in Hollywood, California – hence the name, “Death To Hollywood”. Hopefully, you like to read those kinds of stories. If not, go read something serious and boring.....
This entry was posted in death, family, funeral home, funerals, weird and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to The History of Embalming

  1. Julie H. says:

    Don’t want any part of embalming. A very quick viewing…maybe…and cremetion. Embalming always seemed like a very unnatural thing to do.

  2. The elder sister says:

    Interesting facts, and informative! Hmmmmm, not sure what I’ll do- I’m sure I eat enough preservatives so I should be o.k. with the preservation part, but I don’t want to be buried in the ground!

  3. barskii says:

    Put my dead body in a cheap box and burry my bones.

    if found dead in a ditch – leave me alone –

    I paid the Coast Guard for a buriel at Sea – I heard they no longer allow that ??

  4. Josephine says:

    I don’t really care but I have always thought cremation. I wouldn’t mind being buried in the forest the way I heard some eco-conscious burials are done but burial in a cemetery, even though I love to wander around old cemeteries, just seems like a waste of good growing land. You know, we should bury a bunch of people and then plant crops. Is that cannabalism? 🙂

  5. Maddie says:

    Since we’re stating our wishes: No viewing for me. I have an Advance Directive to cremate my vacated body, then have the cremains (a made-up word) scattered in the Atlantic Ocean off Schoodic Peninsula.

  6. mdonohue says:

    Celeste,You definitely follow in Dad’s footsteps.That was something Dad would do.Give us an entire history of anything,he was thinking.We always learned something,just like this piece.All of you Know my wishes,and i do have to say,I probably enjoyed it more than usual because the blue language wasn’t there.Thanks,Love,Mom

  7. fish says:

    Here is what I tool away from this;
    Styx – horrible band – how dare you!

  8. Kris says:

    Loved styxx!! Cremation for me, a nice irish urn, give some cremains to my loved ones…however they choose to have them…..scatter the rest of me in the ocean in maine off of a nice sailboat! No burial…..i love “blue language” too!! Great history, cee….dad would be proud……

  9. Mountain View Funeral Home says:

    This is a really interesting blog! Although most people today opt for cremation, there are some who preferred to be embalmed and placed in a casket. And for the very curious, a history of embalming is a good topic to study. Find out more about us at Mountain View Funeral Home.

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