The History of Embalming

From the dawn of humanity, people have been treating dead bodies with reverence and respect, often based around religious ceremonies and rituals. The earliest members of Homo sapiens buried their dead, often accompanying the bodies with “grave goods” such as spear points and pottery.


Civil War embalming tent

Our closest human relatives, the Neandertals, also buried their dead, and Neandertal graves have been found with plant pollen inside, indicating that perhaps flowers were placed atop the body.

The most famous ancient embalmers were the early Egyptians. Egyptian religious beliefs held that a person’s soul could not enjoy an eternal afterlife unless it had a body to inhabit. Therefore, everyone who could afford it would have their corpse treated with the process of mummification: the internal organs were removed, the cadaver was packed with salt to dehydrate it, then was wrapped with linen cloth soaked in oil.

At about this same time, around 3000 BC, the inhabitants of the Atacama Desert in South America were using the dry winds of this arid land to preserve the bodies of their dead. In ancient Tibet, corpses of religious monks were sometimes preserved by packing them in salt: in many other cultures, such as the Ethiopians and the Amazonian Jivaro, bodies of prominent people were slowly roasted over a fire to dry them out.

In China, embalmed bodies from the period of the Han Dynasty (from 200 BCE to 200 CE) have been found in remarkable states of preservation. The Chinese had apparently found a method of injecting fluids into the body to prevent decay, but it remains unknown how they did this.

In medieval Europe, the process of burial was regulated by a series of rules set out by the Catholic Church. During the Crusades, when many knights and noblemen died in the far-away Holy Land, the most prominent and wealthy were sometimes crudely preserved by being pickled in a barrel of wine until their remains could be returned home for a Christian burial.  During the Age of Exploration this practice was adopted by naval vessels who traveled far from home: when Admiral Nelson was killed in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, his body was kept in a cask of rum for the three-month voyage back to England.

As medical science advanced and human anatomy became better understood, the possibilities for preserving a dead body increased. After the British doctor William Harvey discovered the process by which blood circulated in the body, it became feasible to prevent decay by injecting an antiseptic solution under pressure directly into a cadaver’s arteries, which would then carry the fluid through the entire body. By the middle of the 18th century, this service was being commercially offered in England: in 1755 one dentist in London became notorious for embalming the body of his deceased wife and propping her outside his shop in a glass-topped coffin as an advertisement.

By the 1850s, an American surgeon named Thomas Holmes, who was serving as the Coroner for New York City, had been experimenting with fluid injections, and used a formula of four ounces of arsenic dissolved in a gallon of water. Holmes’s methods came at just the right time: in 1861, the American Civil War broke out, and soon thousands of soldiers were fighting and dying hundreds of miles away from home.

As it turned out, the first Union soldier killed in the war was a personal friend of President Abraham Lincoln. Militia officer Elmer Ellsworth had once been a clerk in Lincoln’s law office, and when his unit was sent into Alexandria in the first days of the war, Ellsworth was killed as he tried to cut down a Confederate flag. Thomas Holmes approached the President and offered to embalm the young officer’s body for free.

A short time later, Holmes was given a contract by the War Department to embalm the corpses of fallen Union officers so they could be sent home for proper burial. It wasn’t long before other “embalming surgeons” began to follow the Federal Army, setting up tents near the battlefield and offering their services to any family who could afford the cost (ranging from $30 to $50). At first, they would simply approach the soldiers wherever they could and offer a prepaid arrangement in which the embalmer would search for their corpse on the battlefield and undertake the embalming process. Needless to say, that did not turn out to be much of a morale-booster among the troops, and the Army quickly stepped in and banned such sales. Instead, the embalmers would simply wander around the battlefield once the fighting had stopped, looking for remains that could still be identified (many soldiers took to pinning paper tags onto their uniforms with their name and hometown), then contacting the family to offer their services.

In all, around 40,000 dead soldiers and officers were embalmed and shipped by railroad to their hometown for burial. The rest, who could not afford it (or who could not be identified) were simply wrapped in blankets and buried in mass graves. Virtually all of the embalmed were Union men: the South had no trained embalmers, although they sometimes gave “safe passes” to Northern surgeons to enter Confederate lines and embalm prominent officers.

Perhaps the most famous embalming performed during the Civil War, though, was Lincoln himself. After his assassination, his widow Mary allowed the company of Brown and Alexander, Surgeons and Embalmers, to preserve the President’s body so it could be carried by special train across the country for three weeks of public viewings, finally ending at the Lincoln family cemetery in Springfield IL.

After the war, major improvements were made. The arsenic used in the embalming process was toxic, and it often leached out of coffins and entered the local water table. In 1867, a doctor in Germany began using formaldehyde as a preservative, which was much safer. By 1920, funeral homes began appearing, which offered a full suite of mortuary services from embalming to burial.

The National Museum of Funeral History in Houston has a large number of exhibits depicting the history of mortuary practices. There are caskets and hearses from various periods on display, an illustration of Civil War embalming methods, and a special exhibit of artifacts from the funerals of US Presidents.





4 thoughts on “The History of Embalming”

  1. Something I find curious about Egyptian beliefs: religions that cannot offer an afterlife are rare. And in the case of the Egyptians, while the upper classes, who could afford embalming, could be offered this perk, it was presumably not the case with the masses of poor. Which makes me wonder why they were not more rebellious than they actually were. They after all had little to lose Imagine: the upper classes enjoy a highers living standard in this life, AND then get to live forever too, while a poor peasant works his butt off all his life and then just dies. I surely would have been tempted to try removing the Pharaoh’s head, had I lived in such a society.

    The priestly classes must have very thoroughly duped them somehow…

    As for Lord Nelson, it seems to me a simple burial at sea would actually have been more dignified than pickling the poor bloke in rum. But I guess they had different ideas.

    And yes, you’re warped for liking that museum. I wish I could go visit it. 🙂

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