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Embalming is the act of preserving a dead body, so it will not decompose. If a human body is not embalmed, it will start to decay very quickly. Because of this, most bodies are embalmed if they will be on display (for example, lying in state) for a funeral.
The oldest mummified corpses that have ever been found were mummified around 5000-6000 BCE. These corpses are called the Chinchorro mummies. These dead bodies were mummified by ancient people who lived in the Atacama desert, in what is now Chile and Peru.
The ancient Egyptians often mummified dead bodies. They started mummifying corpses as early as 3200 BCE. They believed that once a dead body was mummified, the body's soul could find its way back to the body and begin its journey to the afterlife.
In ancient Europe, embalming dead bodies was less common. The earliest known preserved bodies in Europe are about 5000 years old. These bodies were covered in cinnabar to preserve them. They were found in Osorno, Spain. Embalming dead bodies was unusual in Europe up to the time of the Roman Empire.
The Middle Ages and Renaissance
By about 500 ACE, knowledge about preserving bodies had spread from ancient cultures, and embalming became much more common in Europe. This happened partly because science and medicine were developing, and scientists needed to dissect dead bodies to learn more about the human body. If bodies were not preserved, they would decay right away, and scientists could not dissect them or keep them for other scientists to learn from.
The 17th and 18th centuries
Up until the middle of the 18th century, embalming was used mostly in science and medicine. However, in the mid-18th century, the Scottish surgeon William Hunter used Harvey's methods to preserve bodies in morgues. His brother, John Hunter, was the first to advertise embalming to regular people who wanted to see their loved ones' bodies preserved after death.
The 19th century
In the 19th century, many people became more interested in embalming dead friends and relatives. For example, sometimes a person might want to be buried at a far-away place. However, first, the people who cared about them would want to see their body and pay their last respects to that person. They could do this if the body was embalmed, because the body would not decay.
In the United States, embalming became very common during the time of the Civil War. This happened because many people died far from home while fighting in the war. Their bodies needed to be returned home to be buried, and embalming kept their bodies from decaying during these long trips. When President Abraham Lincoln was killed, embalming allowed his body to be sent home to be buried. This made people in the United States more aware about embalming.
In the past, if a person died from an infectious disease, their body would be buried very quickly to prevent the disease from spreading. Embalming became more common as a way to keep diseases from spreading.
By the mid-19th century, people began to run businesses that provided funerals and burials. At that time, the people who ran these businesses were called undertakers. (Now they are called funeral directors.) These people began to use embalming methods regularly, instead of using older methods like packing bodies in ice.
Until the early 20th century, arsenic was often used to embalm bodies. Eventually it was replaced by other chemicals that work better and are less poisonous. In 1867, the German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann discovered formaldehyde. Scientists soon realized that this chemical worked very well to preserve dead bodies. Soon formaldehyde replaced other chemicals as the most common chemical used to embalm bodies.
In the United States and the Western world, embalming is now very common. Usually, there are a few steps to embalming:
- The embalmer injects chemicals (called embalming fluids) into the body's blood vessels. This causes the blood and other fluids in the body to drain out of the body, and replaces them with the chemicals.
- The embalmer breaks open the hollow organs in the body and fills them with embalming fluids.
- The embalmer may inject embalming fluid under the skin.
- The embalmer may use embalming chemicals right on the skin if the body has injuries.
Usually, embalming takes a few hours.
Embalming does not keep a body from decaying forever. It is meant to preserve a dead person's body for a little while. This allows people to see the body during funeral services, and allows bodies to be shipped to far-away places to be buried. However, no matter what type of embalming is used, the body will eventually decompose.
Religious views about embalming
- Most branches of Christianity
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons)
- The Society of Friends (Quakers)
Some religions say that embalming is never allowed. These religions include:
- The Bahá'í Faith
- Islam and Judaism (except in places where laws say bodies must be embalmed)
- Brenner, Erich (January 2014). "Human body preservation - old and new techniques". Journal of Anatomy: n/a–n/a. .
- Tim Marshall (1995). Murdering to Dissect: Grave-robbing, Frankenstein, and the Anatomy Literature. Manchester University Press. p. 79. https://books.google.com/books?id=LT28AAAAIAAJ.
- Beatty, William (1807). Authentic narrative of the death of lord Nelson. pp. 72–73. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/15233.
- Chiappelli, Jermiah (December 2008). "The Problem of Embalming". Journal of Environmental Health 71 (5): 24.
- "Embalming". National Geographic Partners, LLC. 2016. http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/us_embalming. Retrieved September 13, 2016.
- "Religious Perspectives on Embalming". 2016. https://www.everplans.com/articles/religious-perspectives-on-embalming. Retrieved September 12, 2016.