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Ancient Embalming vs Modern Embalming

In 3000 BC, the ancient Egyptians relied on aromatic resins from trees and plants as a way of saying farewell to their dead. This process is called embalming, which is still used today , but in a different manner. In this article, you will learn how ancient embalmers handled dead bodies compared to the modern version of embalming.

The earliest method of embalming has a history that traces back to around 3000 BC, where corpses were wrapped in cloth and then buried in charcoal and sand in dry regions that did not receive humidity from the Nile. Over the years, the New Kingdom (around 1570 BC) took embalming to an art form. Morticians tried their hand at creating the most realistic paintings of the dead before embalming.

However, the most elaborate embalming skills were saved for royalty, where some corpses even underwent major surgery. The heart, intestines, and lungs were removed from the body and washed in a solution of palm wine. They were then transferred and sealed in an urn filled with herbs and alcohol. Interestingly, the brain was viewed as an organ with no purpose and was actually tossed away.

The open body cavity was filled with myrrh, special perfumed preparations, as well as fragrant gums and oils. The incision was then stitched closed. The mortician then packed the body in an astringent called niter (saltpeter) for two months. The body is then removed and soaked in wine and then wrapped in cotton bandages. The final product underwent a dipping in a paste with a porridge-like consistency and situated in a decorative coffin. In the end, the body was lowered into a sepulcher.

With the Christian Era, ancient techniques in embalming became a thing of the past. The Middle Ages employed some of the techniques, but the process was sped up , regardless if the dead was royalty or not.

Modern Embalming Techniques

The modern techniques of embalming can be traced back to the 1600s when an English physiologist named William Harvey (who also discovered the circulatory system) started injecting arteries with a preservative. After studying veins and arteries, he learned the way blood traveled through the body and believed he could use preservatives as a replacement for blood. While it took a few moments to develop the concept, it wasn’t until more than 100 years that the practice of draining off blood became a reality.

The patenting of modern embalming, where bodily fluids are replaced with chemicals didn’t take shape until 1856. The first to make headway was an entrepreneur from Washington DC named J. Anthony Gaussardia. It didn’t take long for 10 rival patents to emerge, but the movement led to Washington becoming the center of the embalming industry in America.