Melissa Johnson Williams. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2: The Response to Death. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Reference, 2003.
“Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals.”
— William Gladstone (quoted in Mayer 2000:xvii)
What is Embalming
Embalming, simply stated, is the preservation of the dead human body. This can be accomplished by one of two means. The first is a natural means; no human intervention has taken place. Freezing, dry cold, dry heat, and natural soil compositions can create natural embalming. Bodies preserved through freezing have been found in glaciers and ice-capped mountains. There is a morgue on the top of St. Bernard Mountain in Switzerland that has created the dry cold mummies found there. The extreme dry and warm or hot areas of Peru and Egypt have yielded mummies from their shallow graves. In recent years, bodies have been found in perfect states of preservation from naturally occurring peat bogs. In all these cases, no human intervention or introduction of any form of chemical was required to preserve these bodies.
The second form of preservation is through artificial means. This type of preservation is accomplished through the use of chemicals directly introduced into the body. Examples of this kind of preservation are seen in the catacombs of the Capuchin Monastery in Palermo, Italy, where the monks placed the bodies of their deceased members in ovens of slaked lime and then hung them on the walls. Preserving bodies through any form of evisceration, such as that practiced in Egypt, the Canary Islands, and parts of Europe prior to the early 19th century, is another example of artificial preservation. Injection or immersion of the body with any type of chemical, liquid or dry, that delays or retards decomposition is considered an artificial means of preservation.
The First Practice of Artificial Embalming
Embalming is one of the world’s oldest practiced sciences. The Egyptians are the originators of this science of preservation, beginning more than 5,000 years ago. The crude preservation of the dead practiced in 3200 B.C. has evolved over time. Both science and medicine have contributed to this evolution. This chapter will follow the evolution of embalming and changes in the technology that today makes this part art and part science. The chapter covers three separate and distinct periods, and for each period, there will be a discussion of the state of the technology at that time, including innovations that further the science.
The Ancient Period of Embalming (ca. 3200 B.C.-A.D. 650)
Embalming as practiced in Egypt was for religious reasons. The ancient Egyptians believed that after death the soul made a journey of approximately 3,000 years. Through this time, it would pass through many entities, culminating in a reunion with its original body, “if it had not been destroyed,” thus providing a form of resurrection. Some historians suggest that there may have been as many as 400 million human bodies mummified during the 4,600+ years of this period.
During each dynastic period, embalming practices varied according to individual embalmers. What today might be called funeral homes were then called “the necropolis” or “city of the dead” in ancient Egypt. These small empires handled all the preparations for the dead.
The Greek historian, Herodotus, described the work done at these places:
There are certain individuals appointed for that purpose [the embalming], and who profess the art; these persons, when any body is brought to them, show the bearers some wooden models of corpses; the most perfect they assert to be the representation of him whose name I take it impious to mention in this matter [Osiris]; they show a second, which is inferior to the first, and cheaper; and a third which is cheapest of all. (Wallis Budge 1995:177)
Diodorus Siculus (45 B.C.) wrote,
The manner of their burials is three-fold: one very costly, a second sort less chargeable, and a third very mean. In the first, there is spent a talent of silver ($1,200); in the second, twenty minae ($300); but in the last there is very little expense ($75). (quoted in Wallis Budge 1995:179)
The length of time required to perform the embalming varied according to the price paid. The most expensive required 70 days time, whereas the cheapest took just a few days. All three embalming types required some form of evisceration of the body—minimally, removal of the intestines, and for the more extensive procedure, removing the brain through the nose as well as all the organs of the chest and abdomen, placing some of the organs in special jars called canopic urns.
The body was then completely covered in natron, a natural product of the desert that is quite corrosive. Its chemical composition was found to be of chloride, carbonate and sulphate of sodium, and nitrate of potassium and sodium. The natron completely dried out the body, to the point of removing the fingernails and toenails. At the conclusion of the natron emulsion, the body was washed with palm wine and then dried in the sun. Then some of the organs would be returned to the body in separate packages and the incisions crudely sutured closed. The body was then wrapped in linen (according to the price paid) and sealed with patches of resin. Amulets for the protection of the body on its journey were affixed in the bandaging according to the station the person occupied during life.
Some families chose to encase the body in a wooden coffin that was decorated with a lifelike painted picture of the deceased. The boxes were also decorated with symbols or hieroglyphics that told a story or were meant to protect the body.
There is evidence from many of the mummies that have been recovered that there was also practiced a form of postmortem plastic surgery (called restorative art). This included packing the mouth and eyelids to restore a more normal appearance following the severe drying effects of the natron emulsion.
From a social standpoint, Egypt was a tremendous seat of learning. There were established schools for virtually every learned discipline. In Alexandria, famed teacher and practitioner Claudius Galen (A.D. 130-200) wrote one of the earliest works on human anatomy. His textbook was based on dissection of animals such as monkeys and pigs because it would have been considered a desecration for him to violate a human body. His work was so revered that through A.D. 1200 it was considered the definitive work on human anatomy.
The Egyptian period came to a close with the rise of Christianity and the decline of the Roman and Egyptian empires. The early Christians believed that embalming was a pagan practice and strictly forbade its continuance through edicts by the Church in Rome (Johnson 1949).
Other Civilizations and Embalming
During the Ancient Period, other civilizations also practiced embalming. Middle Eastern cultures of the ancient Persians, Syrians, and Babylonians soaked the entire body in wax or honey or a mixture of both. When Alexander the Great died during a military campaign in 323 B.C. at Babylon, his body was immersed in this fashion in order to return it to Egypt.
The Guanche tribe was quite advanced for being a small remote culture on the Canary Islands. The embalmers were both men and women taking exclusive care of their own sex. The body cavity was opened, and the intestines were removed, washed, and later returned to the body. The inside of the body was thoroughly washed, and the body was salted inside and out, with the intestines being returned with aromatic herbs and plants. The exterior of the body was covered in a resin of butter, brushwood, and pumice and laid to dry in the sun or placed in an oven for drying. If the body was left out to dry, the embalmer stood guard to prevent predatory birds and animals from defiling it. This process took approximately 15 days, at which time the family claimed the body, sewed it into a goatskin, and moved it to the expansive caves found on the island. More prominent individuals had elaborate coffins that were made during the time of the embalming.
The mummies of Peru are thought to be the result of a more natural drying process than a true embalming. However, the bodies were prepared for this process prior to being buried. The climate of Peru is extremely dry, and the bodies were buried in shallow graves. The typical Peruvian mummy is found squatting and is wrapped first in a white cotton sheet, then in a brightly colored blanket, and finally in a layer of a cottonlike material; straw matting with a rope tied around it encased the corpse. The mouth was found to contain a small piece of gold, silver, or copper. The bodies faced toward the west with provisions of corn and coca in earthen jars alongside them.
The preservation of bodies on the Aleutian Islands and along the Kodiak Archipelago was unusual. The internal organs were removed and replaced with native dry grass. The bodies were then placed in streams where cold running water removed any fatty tissue. The body was then removed and forced into the fetal position with the knees under the chin and the arms around the legs. This was accomplished by breaking bones if necessary. The positioned body was left to dry in the sun and then wrapped in animal skins.
These various descriptions seem to underscore the notion that many cultures believed in the value of preserving the body, for whatever motivation they may have had. We have been fortunate through anthropologists worldwide to get a glimpse of burial practices that are now centuries old (Johnson 1949).
The Middle Period (ca. 651-1861)
After the decline of Roman and Egyptian Empires and the rise of Christianity, there came the Dark Ages. This term meant many different things historically: Law and order were replaced with anarchy and barbarism; stable geographic leadership was replaced with roaming bands of thugs, hoodlums, and outlaws. The Roman Catholic Church ruled virtually everything in Europe and declared certain practices to be pagan, including the preservation of bodies as was seen in Egypt.
Many libraries that collected works on medicine and science that contained references of embalming were completely destroyed. There was an overwhelming belief that the world would end by the year A.D. 1000, and as a result there was no need to put forth any effort to learn, create, or teach anything new.
When the world did not end, many of the intellectuals of the day brought forth the idea to again seek education in medicine, law, and religious life. Many of the monks who had initially been instructed to destroy books during the Dark Ages now came forward with the treasures they had secreted away. These monks began to copy these great works to help make them available throughout Europe during the Renaissance Period. By A.D. 1300, the Catholic Church lifted its previous edict banning the dissection of bodies. This permitted the medical schools of the time to begin the practice of teaching anatomy and opened the door for modern medicine as we know it today.
During the Renaissance, universities flourished; France, England, Italy, Germany, and Holland had some of the most outstanding medical schools of that day. Many scholars from these institutions had led the way to extensive knowledge of how the human body works. Contributing to these scientists and physicians was an unusual source of knowledge—the artist. The sketches and paintings of artists such as the great Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt added to the knowledge of the human body.
Beginning in about 1300, authority was granted to medical schools to have delivered to them the bodies of executed prisoners for the purpose of dissection. The dissection classes were held almost exclusively in the winter months to prevent the rapid decomposition of the bodies. These classes were a sort of theater in many cities, with the public permitted to be present for the instruction.
The typical anatomy class of the day was conducted by a professor (physician of the long robe) who read from Galen’s textbook on anatomy (remember, this was based on animal anatomy). A second professor (physician of the short robe) pointed out the structures in body while the “barber surgeon” actually performed the dissection. This was a difficult task because the anatomy of Galen’s book frequently could not be matched to that found in the human body. During this time “body snatching” began to appear. Many of the physicians who were frustrated by the conflicting information in Galen’s book went to cemeteries or even to a gallows and recovered the bodies left there for their own personal inspection.
It was becoming increasing clear to these early physicians and scientists that there was a need to preserve the body so that examinations could be done under longer-term conditions. During the mid to late 1300s, several individuals made attempts to fill blood vessels and body cavities with solutions for several purposes. One was to determine where these structures lead to, and the other was a crude attempt to preserve them while the physician looked at how they worked. It was not until the early 16th century that a true method of injecting the body with a preservative substance was used (Johnson 1949).
The 15th, 16th, and 17th Centuries
During the course of his magnificent career, Leonard da Vinci dissected more than 50 bodies and created more than 750 anatomically correct sketches. His work shows evidence that he experimented with injected blood vessels and hollow organs such as the bowel and lungs to create more accurate drawings.
Physicians of that time, such as Berengarius and Eustachio, were injecting colored inks into arteries, veins, the trachea, and the rectum to determine the size, function, and ultimate beginning and ending points. Jan Swammerdam continued a long successful career after his early efforts of injecting wax into cavities and creating molds that allowed him to trace the outlines of, among other organs, the ventricles of the brain.
This time period also saw the invention of early medical instruments. Cannulas and syringes were developed for injecting materials into organs or vessels. Wood and bone were sculpted into small short rods that held up blood vessels, ligaments, and tendons. Smaller versions of saws were created that could cut through dense bone such as the femur, skull, and vertebrae.
The greatest contribution to the study of anatomy was in 1545 when Andreas Vesalius of Brussels published the first human anatomy book, De Humanis Corporis Fabrica. Based on his own dissections, the book was accurate in detail and was a beauty to behold. His eloquent lectures were accompanied by a demonstration of his own dissection work. He is said to have been able to draw great crowds at the many publicly held anatomy dissection presentations.
The earliest written accounts of embalming during the Renaissance are by Peter Forestus, a German physician who learned at the University of Leiden in Holland. He wrote five reports contained in a 1605 treatise titled Wound Surgery. He described his solution, which included rosemary, myrrh, marjoram, pumice, and fresh cold water. The body was eviscerated and thoroughly washed. The body cavity was then filled with alternating layers of the mixture with sponges until it was completely filled and then sewed back together.
Ambrose Pare, a French military barber-surgeon who went on to become the official surgeon to three French Kings, also wrote about his work with surgery and embalming. He is credited with using a ligature to control bleeding after amputations and use of artificial limbs. In his The Works of Ambrose Pare, translated into English and published in 1634, he writes “On the Manner Howe to Embalme the Dead.” He describes the use of spices, vinegar, and wines along with the removal of the blood by pressing it out of the limbs.
The end of the 17th century saw the greatest advancements, including the first injection method for the preservation of a dead human body. Jan Swammerdam, Frederick Ruysch, and Stephen Blanchard, all from the University of Leiden in Holland, together developed a technique that allowed preservative solutions to be injected into the body. Swammerdam was educated in medicine, but his true interest was insects and small animals. With the assistance of Leeuwenhoek’s (the inventor of the microscope) microscopes, he guided very small glass cannulas into the insects and injected a preservative solution. His solution contained wine spirits, turpentine, waxes, and rum. This system proved to be quite satisfactory, and he gathered his collection into a museum at his home.
During the course of his tenure at Leiden, Ruysch observed Swammerdam’s collection. Using the same method, he applied it to human bodies and body parts. He, too, went on to have an extensive collection that was used for teaching purposes. He cleverly created “dioramas” out of human body parts and whole fetuses. His method was deemed so reliable that he was requested by the Dutch government to embalm the remains of British Admiral Sir William Berkley who died in a sea battle in 1666. The body was returned to England for burial where it was described as having a normal appearance.
Stephen Blanchard paid the ultimate compliment to both Swammerdam and Ruysch by publishing their collective work in his book A New Anatomy With Concise Directions for Dissection of the Human Body With a New Method of Embalming in 1688. He includes his own work with embalming, which describes the use of the cannula inserted into arteries and veins for flushing out the blood and injecting wine and turpentine.
In January 1632, the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons conducted its annual public anatomy demonstration. Dr. Nicholaas Tulp, a prominent distinguished physician and member of the Surgeon’s Guild commissioned Rembrandt to commemorate the event. The painting is a portrait of the members of the guild poised around a recumbent cadaver with Dr. Tulp perusing the opened fleshy arm. This was to be Rembrandt’s first great painting. At the time of his death, it is said that his studio contained dissected arms and legs (Johnson 1949).
The 18th Century Through the Mid-19th Century
The practice of anatomy dissection and, ultimately, embalming differs slightly in England. At this time in England, many of those who taught anatomy did so through small tutorial lessons often conducted from a portion of their private homes. Such was the case with William Hunter and his younger brother, John. Both were quite distinguished scholars educated at the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. A part of the lecture on anatomy included a discussion of the preparation of anatomical specimens and embalming corpses.
William Hunter’s method employed using the femoral artery for injection of his solution composed of turpentine, oil of lavender and chamomile, and vermilion dye. He firmly believed that it was imperative to begin embalming a body within 8 hours and 24 hours respectively in summer and winter to achieve the best results possible.
John Hunter also had his own private anatomy rooms. He is said to have educated many future geniuses of medicine. Like his brother, he had an extensive collection of anatomical and pathological specimens. Both brothers donated their collections to the Royal College of Surgeons. The bombings of London during World War II destroyed much of the combined collection.
Many tales still exist about the brother’s unorthodox manner of adding to their private collections, including grave robbing and body stealing. John Hunter had as part of his collection the skeleton of the Irish Giant O’Brien. Hunter saw O’Brien at a carnival. His 7-foot 7-inch frame fascinated Hunter. Hunter is said to have made public remarks about wanting to “procure” O’Brien’s body after death. O’Brien was told this and made arrangements with several of his friends that when he died, his body should be taken immediately out to the sea and sunk so it could not be retrieved. Hunter prepared to obtain O’Brien’s body by visiting the local undertaker and paying him $2,500, an extraordinary sum for that day. At the time of O’Brien’s death, the undertaker offered to hold the coffin of O’Brien while the friends ate, drank, and made merry. The barn housing the coffin of O’Brien also housed several of the undertaker’s friends who quickly moved the body to Hunter’s museum, the coffin now holding stones equivalent to O’Brien’s weight. Hunter proceeded to dissect the body and then boiled the bones. The entire skeleton was on display in the Royal College Museum until the bombings of World War II. There is a famous painting of John Hunter that shows over his shoulder the outline of the skeletal foot of O’Brien (Johnson 1949).
Occupational Health of Undertakers
An interesting chapter appears in the Diseases of Workers by Bernardino Ramazzini, considered the father of occupational medicine. Writing his text in 1713, he included a chapter titled “Diseases of Corpse-Bearers.” In the beginning of the chapter he writes,
In antiquity the business of corpse-bearers and undertakers was more elaborate than it is now. Corpse-bearers have to go down into those terribly fetid caverns full of decomposing corpses and lay in them the bodies that have been brought there; hence they are exposed to very dangerous diseases…. But to complete my task: we must safeguard the health of corpse-bearers, whose services are so necessary, and it is only fair, seeing that they bury in the earth not only the dead but the doctor’s mistakes as well, that the art of medicine should do them a good turn and repay them for saving the reputation of profession [italics added]. (Ramazzini 1713 :chap. 28)
At the Vienna School during the mid-19th century, “The dissecting room was not only the antechamber to medicine, it was the temple itself” (Robinson 1941:855). The cadaver was the ultimate seat of learning. A profound problem here led to a significant contribution to the safety of both medical practitioners and embalmers. The Lying-In Hospital had two clinics; one was attended by medical students, the other by midwives. Although there was no difference in these two clinics, the one attended by the medical students had a higher rate of maternal death. The women died as a result of “puerperal fever,” a highly septic condition that caused death quickly. The assistant to the Head of Obstetrics, Ignaz Semmelweis was obsessed with this situation. After returning from a vacation, he learned of the death of Jakob Kolletschka, an esteemed colleague and friend. While performing a postmortem examination, Kolletschka was stuck in the finger by a student with a knife. Shortly after the accident, he began exhibiting signs of severe infection. Kolletschka’s blood showed the same signs that caused the deaths of women he attended at the medical student’s obstetric clinic. As Semmelweis looked at the problem and the differences between the two clinics, he realized that the medical students came directly from the anatomy laboratories to the clinic. They performed the dissections without gloves on and without washing their hands before going to the obstetric clinic. They examined pregnant women, delivered babies, and directly infected these women with bacteria that caused their death. Once the association between the two was found, the school instituted a new rule; students must disinfect their hands before going to the clinic. In America, this same problem was seen in medical schools. By 1880, medical schools and hospitals required the use of rubber gloves to prevent the spread of infection from cadavers to students, professors, and patients (Robinson 1941).
Refining the Chemical Treatment and Methods
During the late 18th century, it became clear that something more than just wine and turpentine was needed to preserve a human body. Chemists in France and Italy began working on formulas that would incorporate, among other things, hydrogen peroxide, pure alcohol, bichloride of mercury, and arsenic.
In France, Baron Cuvier advocated the use of a pure alcohol solution, which he found worked on his specimens of mammals and birds. Francois Chaussier believed that immersion of the eviscerated body in bichloride of mercury, long recognized as an effective wound disinfectant, worked best. Louis Thenard experimented with hydrogen peroxide and advocated the use of an alcoholic solution of bichloride of mercury to be injected into the vascular system.
In Italy, Dr. Tranchini of Naples was a proponent of the use of arsenic for preservation. His composition contained 1 pound of dry arsenic dissolved into alcoholic wine. A 2-gallon solution was prepared and injected through either the femoral or carotid arteries. His famous student Alfredo Salafia is still renowned (more than 80 years later) for his excellent lifelike preservation of Rosalia Lombardo (also known as Sleeping Beauty). Rosalia was 2 years old when she died and is entombed in the Children’s Chapel at the Capuchin Monastery Catacombs in Palermo (Johnson, Johnson, and Williams 1993).
Probably the most significant contribution to modern-day embalming was from Jean Nicholas Gannal of France. He began his career as an apothecary assistant and went on to become one of France’s greatest chemists of the early 19th century. His contribution to the advancement of cadaver preservation began in 1831 when he was asked to develop an improved method. He experimented with many different chemicals, including alum, sodium chloride, nitrate of potash, arsenic, and chloride of alumina. Many of these chemicals he found to be highly corrosive to the internal blood vessel structures, to the point of completely destroying them. His final solution for anatomical purposes was the use of 6 quarts of acetate of alumina. This adequately preserved the bodies for use in anatomy dissection classes. His reputation was so well known that he was asked to perform embalming for funeral purposes. He changed his solution to include a small amount of arsenic and carmine, injecting 2 gallons through the carotid artery. In 1838, he published the first embalming textbook, titled History of Embalming and of Preparations in Anatomy, Pathology and Natural History; including an Account of a New Process for Embalming.
In April 1840, Gannal was caught up in a sensational murder case. Paris newspapers of the day recounted the events from the day-to-day activities of the trial. The family of a French nobleman who was found dead retained Gannal to embalm the remains for the funeral. The nobleman’s family suspected that the gentlemen’s mistress had poisoned him with arsenic. She was arrested and placed on trial. As Gannal read the accounts of the trial, it became clear to him that the mistress was innocent. He went to the court and asked to be heard, describing his embalming preparation, which included the use of arsenic. She was freed, and after that, the French government prohibited the use of arsenic in embalming chemicals (Mayer 2000).
Embalming in America
During this time in America, several medical schools were teaching anatomy dissection. Dr. Richard Harlan who was in charge of Joseph Parrish’s private anatomical dissection rooms in Philadelphia was appointed a member of the City Health Council. In 1838, he and group of his colleagues traveled to Paris. While there, he visited Jean Gannal, who presented him with a copy of his embalming textbook. Harlan was so taken with the book that he contacted Gannal after his return to Philadelphia, requesting permission to translate the book into English and publish it in America. Gannal gave his permission, and the book was published in 1840.
- P. Sucquet of France exclusively used zinc chloride as his preservative chemical. His solution was 5 quarts of a 20% zinc chloride solution injected through the popliteal artery. In one case, the body was buried for 2 years and then disinterred and found to be in a perfect state of preservation. In 1845, Sucquet sold the rights for U.S. distribution to the famed embalmers of New York City, Dr. Charles Brown and Joseph Alexander (Johnson 1965).
The Modern Period (ca. 1861-present)
By 1861 in America, the Civil War was just getting under way. The transfer of embalming knowledge from Britain and Europe was complete. The perfection of science and art would far exceed what many of the early embalming visionaries might have imagined.
The Civil War was the pivotal event that made this knowledge known to the general public. The Union Army had embalmers in the field where major battles were taking place. These embalmers set up tents and prepared the bodies of dead soldiers to be returned to their loved ones. “Embalming surgeons,” as they were called, were physicians. The Department of the Army regulated embalming surgeons, including requiring them to place a security bond for the privilege of performing embalming. Many see this as the first licensing of embalmers because the physicians had to prove that they were knowledgeable in the practice of embalming. No historical evidence has ever been found to document this procedure being practiced in the Confederate Army.
Embalming tents on the battlefield included a wooden plank board perched on two barrels; a syringe with a bulb attached was used for injecting chemicals, which were mixed by the individual embalmers. At this time, the primary chemical composition almost uniformly was a mixture of arsenic, zinc chloride, bichloride of mercury, and a variety of salts. The carotid or femoral arteries were used for injecting chemicals. If the body was too damaged from injuries, the fluid was directed into the cavities, and the body was placed in a coffin on a bed of sawdust.
Besides preparation of the body, the embalming surgeons sold coffins; the going price for a zinc coffin was set at $40.00. Disinterments were permitted between October and May only. The price paid for the coffin, boxed and delivered to the express office, was $75.00. Embalming cost $15.00 (Johnson 1965).
Public Funerals and Embalming
Early on in the war, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, Commander of the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry was shot to death while removing a Confederate flag draping a hotel in Alexandria, Virginia. Dr. Thomas Holmes, considered the father of modern embalming, embalmed Colonel Ellsworth’s body, which was viewed by thousands at the White House, in New York City, and at his home in Albany, New York. His funeral was a public event, with the popular press of the day commenting on the condition of his remains. This was the first of many prominent funerals that stretched over several days to several weeks, thus providing the public with a firsthand look at what embalming could do.
The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln provided the public from the East Coast to central Illinois the opportunity to pay their final respects to the president. The April 15, 1865, issue of the New York Times, states the following: “The body is being embalmed at the Executive Mansion with a view to its removal to Illinois.” Mr. Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater on the evening of April 14 and died in the early hours of April 15. Henry P. Cattell of the Brown & Alexander, Embalming Surgeons firm embalmed him. Mr. Cattell had previously embalmed the remains of little Willie Lincoln, son of the president, who died in 1862. Mr. Cattell never provided an accounting of his experience of embalming the president, who died as a result of a gunshot wound to the head. The fact that Mr. Lincoln’s body was viewed over the 19 days from death to burial in Springfield, Illinois, bares evidence that Cattell had excellent skills. On April 25, the train carrying Mr. Lincoln began its 1,700 miles journey with stops for viewing by over 100,000 along the way. On April 30, the train arrived in Chicago with an extensive open casket viewing at the Courthouse. On May 3, the train arrived in Springfield, Illinois, for burial at Oak Ridge Cemetery. The public accounts of the day state “that he had the appearance of sleeping.” Without the use of embalming, this very public funeral would not have been possible.
The End of the War and Embalming Expansion
With the end of the War in 1865, many of the embalming surgeons of the day returned to their prewar practices. Some continued the practice of embalming and began teaching it as well. Dr. Thomas Holmes returned to New York City and was sought after for both embalming and teaching services.
At this time, there was an expansion of related industries and services. Embalming chemicals were mass produced by companies that held patents on them. Some companies employed traveling salesmen who could teach embalming as well as sell a product. C. H. Crane of Michigan held a patent on his “Crane’s Electrodynamic Mummifier.” This was a powdered mixture of arsenic, bichloride of mercury, and zinc chloride and could be used dry or mixed in a solution for injection. Professor George Rhodes sold some 10,000 bottles of “Electro Balm,” and the “Egyptian Embalmer Fluid” was sold in 5- and 10-gallon kegs.
During this time, the use of rubber gloves and medical instruments became popular. Syringes, cannulas, eye caps for keeping the eyes closed, and special mouth closers were purchased for use by embalmers. From the immediate postwar period until the early 1900s, the preparation of the dead was done in the home. The embalmer embalmed the remains in the bed, using the axillary artery and vein for injection of chemicals and removal of blood, respectively. The embalmer brought all his equipment to the home—instruments, chemicals, and bottles for removing blood. The use of the bed for embalming proved to be cumbersome, and a specialized folding table was introduced for this purpose. The body was laid out in the parlor in the coffin and then taken to the church or cemetery.
Necessity does become the mother of invention. With most private homes being made of wood, there were reports of many unfortunate accidents taking place with the visitation in the home. It was not uncommon to read in the popular press that during the course of a wake, the floor would collapse under the weight of the coffin and all the mourners. In some accounts, there were deaths of the mourners from the collapse. By the late 1890s, funeral parlors were equipped with rooms for preparation and chapels for the wake (Mayer 2000).
The Move Toward Professionalism
By the 1900s, there was more organization within the profession. The advent of professional journals, associations, and schools provided cohesion throughout the country as this knowledge spread west and south. Early professional journals such as The Casket, The Sunnyside, and The Western Undertaker provided articles on embalming, news of local “undertakers,” and advertisements for chemicals, coffins, burial clothing, and other sundry items. These early publications were a cross between a gossip/social tabloid and a professional journal. Dueling prominent embalmers carried out a war of words over their techniques in the pages of these journals, sometimes on an ongoing basis. The accounts of meetings of local undertaker associations included the dinner menu and what the “wives” wore.
Informal meetings of undertakers soon evolved into formal associations. In 1880, the undertakers of the State of Michigan were the first in the country to form a funeral directors association. As other states quickly followed, in 1882 at Rochester, New York, those states that formed individual associations formed the National Funeral Directors Association. One of the big attractions at early NFDA meetings were practical embalming demonstrations by the leading embalmers of the day.
One of the earliest to demonstrate at a convention of NFDA members was Dr. Auguste Renouard, a physician by training. His early travels brought him from Louisiana, where he was born, educated, and served in the Confederate Army, to Chicago and then on to Denver, Colorado. In Denver, he worked for the typical combination furniture store and undertaking establishment that was involved in returning bodies home from the many “health resorts” devoted to respiratory ailments. Upon his arrival at the undertaking company, he discovered that they were shipping the bodies unembalmed, and he persuaded the owners to allow him to embalm them. The response of the receiving undertakers was 100% positive. Many wrote to ask how the process worked and to request personal instruction in this process. At the request of many of his students in Denver and the publisher of The Casket who had heard of the magnificent condition of the bodies, he wrote a textbook titled The Undertakers’ Manual: A Treatise of Useful and Reliable Information; Embracing Complete and Detailed Instructions for the Preservation of Bodies. The book, which included chapters on arterial preservation, chemistry, instruments, anatomy, and “hints on the profession of undertaking,” is considered the first true embalming textbook. His chemical composition was manufactured and made available for sale through advertisements in professional journals.
His skills were so sought after that he opened a formal school in Rochester, New York, in 1883 with the financial backing of the Egyptian Chemical Company until December of 1884. He affiliated with several other chemical companies up to 1894, when he settled in New York City and established the U.S. College of Embalming until 1900 when he closed the school. His son Charles, who was at this time working for an embalming chemical company, moved to New York City in 1899. Charles opened the Renouard Training School for Embalmers, and his father joined him there. The success of Dr. Renouard is found in the requests that he had from England and Europe to provide embalming demonstrations. Although Dr. Renouard died in 1912, the school continued until his son’s death in 1950.
Other early educators in embalming include John Henry Clarke, the founder of what is today the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was a prolific demonstrator and author of numerous professional journal articles and embalming textbooks.
Albert Worsham not only attended the Barnes School of Embalming but was also a faculty member from 1903 until the school closed in 1911, at which time he opened his own school, which continues today. He, like other embalming educators, was a writer and demonstrator. His particular interest was in postmortem plastic surgery. His fascination with the repair of damaged heads and faces led to a new course in this field.
Women as Embalmers
The role of women in funeral service cannot be down-played. From Victorian times, puritan idealism maintained that no man should see a woman’s body. This idealism was upheld by women undertakers, sometimes called “layer-outers of the dead,” who prepared the bodies of women and children. The body was cleaned and dressed and then laid in its bed or in the family parlor.
By the end of the 19th century, women embalming demonstrators were prominently noted in the pages of the professional journals. Mademoiselle Lina Odou had been a nurse by training. Her school, the Odou Institute for Lady Embalmers, advertised “Instruction for Women—The Aim and Purpose of the institute is to prepare women for service as embalmers, under the inspiration and training of women instructors.” In addition, her advertisement stated that she had a correspondence school for women who could not attend the sessions.
Professor Lena R. Simmons first made the pages of The Sunnyside in 1908 with the following announcement:
Thousands of women, as the wives, daughters, and sisters of members of this profession are deeply interested in embalming and the care of the dead. We take pleasure in announcing that with a view to giving due recognition to this large constituency, we have succeeded in securing as contributors in 1909, two women who have already won signal distinction as instructors of embalming. Both are highly educated, intelligent and devoted women. Both are happily married, and mothers, and believe that the Undertaker’s vocation is a sacred one. (Williams 1997a: 5)
From 1911 through a return from retirement in 1935, Mrs. Simmons actively taught, wrote, and demonstrated her skills as an embalmer. Her school is still in existence today in Syracuse, New York, where it pays homage to this early woman pioneer embalmer (Williams 1977a, 1977b).
With the move toward professionalism well under way, the continued modernization of the field played an important role. With a national association and professional publications thriving, the next move was toward a professional education model. The number of mortuary schools was rapidly expanding, and the introduction of licensure in the late 1890s was now been widely accepted. The convergence of the two entities took place in 1927 with the creation of the Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards. This national organization assisted states in preparing licensure examinations and establishing national guidelines for curriculum, faculty qualifications, and examinations, with the ability to enforce these guidelines.
The development of the American Board of Funeral Service Education brought education into the 20th century. Basic coursework content was set by a syllabus for each discipline within the mortuary science curriculum. Regular reviews of the syllabus and content assured that it was current and up to date (Mayer 2000).
The Need for Modern Treatment
Up to the beginning of the 20th century, embalming chemicals were considered poisonous to the embalmer. They provided excellent preservation, but concern for the safety of embalmers and the possibility of covering up a murder led to the formalization of laws prohibiting the use of poisonous chemicals, including arsenic, bichloride of mercury, zinc chloride, and hydrochloric acid. They were completely banned in the United States by 1920.
The ease with which the banning of these chemicals took place was made possible by the discovery of formalin in the late 1890s. This new chemical took some practice to work with because it did not provide the same results as the previously used chemicals. Bodies embalmed with formalin were rigidly firm, whereas they had been somewhat moveable after embalming with other chemicals. The formalin turned the bodies a gray color, but the arsenic group had a bleaching effect. The other problem was that formalin gave off fumes that irritated the eyes, nose, and throat. For these reasons, it created problems when used in the home. After much trial and error, the use of formalin proved to be quite successful, leaving bodies in an excellent state of preservation.
The introduction of electricity to homes and businesses changed the injection method from one performed by a handheld device or gravity apparatus to one driven by an electric machine. The electric machines combined the use of pressure and rate of flow to control the force and speed at which embalming chemicals were delivered to the internal body.
The final piece of the modern era came with indoor plumbing and water pressure to improve the aspiration of body cavity contents following arterial injection. This eliminated the problem of using glass bottles, which could explode, to collect aspirated materials (Mayer 2000).
The Modern Embalming Procedure
Today, when the body is brought to the embalming room, all bandages, medical apparatus, and devices are removed. The body is washed with a germicidal soap, and the mouth is cleansed with a disinfectant and permanently closed by one of several methods. A small flesh-colored plastic cap with ridges in it is placed on each eye to keep it closed. The embalmer evaluates the current condition of the body and determines what chemicals to use, the anatomical site for injection, and what problem areas, such as bedsores, will require treatment.
Embalming a nonautopsied body is performed by the use of any artery of the embalmer’s preference, using the accompanying vein for drainage. A cannula (metal tube) is placed into the artery and attached by a hose to the embalming machine. The vein is opened and a bent forceps is inserted to assist with removing clots that can become congealed and clog the venous system. Once the machine is turned on and the rate of flow and pressure are set, the fluid as selected by the embalmer is delivered to the internal body areas first. As the fluid makes it way through the body, you can see it changing the skin surface texture, color, and fullness. The veins of the skin surface up, giving a lifelike appearance. Dark purple discolorations, which are normal after death, disappear. Signs of illness, age, and trauma also begin disappearing. The embalmer continues to examine the body for signs of uniform preservation until he or she feels satisfied. The instruments are removed from the body, and a long tube with a sharp pointed tip is inserted into the abdomen, thorax, and pelvic cavities. Water pressure is turned on, removing any blood and body fluids that linger inside the cavities. Once that is finished, the introduction of an undiluted formalin product through the same long tube and a hose connected to the bottle takes place. This completed, the hole is closed with a screw button device, and the incisions sutured closed. The body and hair are bathed, the fingernails are groomed, and the eyes and mouth sealed closed with glue.
The selection of chemicals is by the embalmers preference; the amounts vary from as little as 2 gallons to as much as 5 or 6 gallons. The condition of the body itself dictates what the embalmer uses. In the intervening years since the development of formalin, products for use in body conditions such as edema, jaundice, and emaciation have been successfully created. Water softeners, dyes, and special bleaching agents round out the chemical choices embalmers have available.
Although the above description makes it seem easy, the embalmer today faces many challenges. The advancement of medicine has created a wealth of good for the living but created nightmares for the embalmer. Antibiotic-resistant organisms can make the body nonviewable if not treated properly. Organ donation and transplantation prolong life but can also create problems. The donor can now have both sets of leg bones (upper and lower leg), the humerus, the hip bones, the mandible (lower jaw), and virtually every organ removed. The embalmer has to deal with problems of leakage from a completely open vascular system and with re-creating a natural form and appearance.
Many patients today have sepsis, an overwhelming bacterial presence that literally causes the body to decompose before death. There has been an 85% increase in deaths directly or indirectly attributable to sepsis in the last 20 years. In addition, some forms of chemical therapy cause the body to retain enormous amounts of water, making a person unrecognizable while still alive (Pinner et al. 1996). The accumulation of water and the body’s inability to work normally and rid itself of waste products creates a situation that works against the embalming fluid. The water in the body (edema) serves to further dilute the embalming fluid (which is a concentrated bottle of formaldehyde and other preservatives mixed with water prepared by the embalmer on a case-by-case basis) making it weaker. The liver and kidney when working properly rid the body of waste material, such as nitrogen and its by-products. One of the by-products is ammonia, which will neutralize formaldehyde, making the embalming fluid ineffective. This situation (along with other conditions) makes it more difficult for the embalmer but is not insurmountable to overcome.
These and other challenges that the embalmer takes on make it possible for families to have a final viewing of their loved one. Embalming can take away the signs of disease and trauma and give families peace of mind. Many hours will be spent making the necessary repairs, but it is time well spent. The ultimate compliment that an embalmer can receive is to have a family leave the casket open when they believed it would have to be closed.
Although embalming is traditionally seen by the public as a process that allows the body to be present and viewed for the funeral, it also is used in other situations. Any number of situations will not permit viewing of the remains, but the body will be embalmed. When human remains have not been found for sometime, they will actively decompose because of a lack of preservation. The remains can be embalmed, which halts the decomposition process but does not reverse it. This allows the remains to be transported to another location for burial without the offensive odor that is normally present. Some families want the body in the casket even if they cannot see it.
In situations where the remains are burned beyond recognition or are dismembered, a viewing will not be possible, but embalming helps to preserve the remains and allows the family to have services.
Human remains used in medical schools are embalmed but not viewed. They are preserved by a slightly different process than that used by funeral homes and with special chemicals. This solution allows the remains to be used for up to 2 years. The remains must be quickly transferred to the medical school or agency that will do the preparation to prevent decomposition changes.
There have always been certain religious groups that forbid embalming. Both Muslims and Jews prohibit embalming except in special circumstances such as shipping to other locations. These remains will be washed and ceremonially wrapped and placed either in a casket or directly into the ground, depending on the particular sect’s beliefs.
Over the last 20 years, we have seen changes in the services that families have traditionally selected. Many are opting for cremation as a method of disposition, and some of these are direct cremations for which no services or viewing will take place. Some statistics have suggested that this will be the new wave of the future. However, the direct cremation phenomenon has failed to take hold as was once predicted. Families select direct cremation for a number of reasons, including financial considerations, attempting to avoid funeral-associated emotional issues, lack of understanding of the options available, and feeling no need for funeral services, to name a few. Many families select direct cremation and find that it leaves them wanting for something. In future arrangements, they may select cremation as a method of disposition but will have a viewing or funeral services or both.
The tradition of the funeral, as most Americans know it, will always be an option and something that many families want in the future. They will want to be able to see their loved one, one last time. A funeral provides comfort to families who see their loved one free of disease or trauma and in a peaceful setting, supported by extended family members and friends.