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Embalming, in most modern cultures, is a process used to temporarily preserve human remains to forestall decomposition and make it suitable for display at a funeral. It has a long history, and other cultures had embalming processes that had much greater religious meaning.
History of embalming
Embalming has been practiced in many cultures. In classical antiquity, perhaps the Old World culture that had developed embalming to the greatest extent was that of ancient Egypt, who developed the process of mummification. They believed that preservation of the mummy empowered the soul after death, which would return to the preserved corpse.
Embalming in Europe had a much more sporadic existence. It was attempted from time to time, especially during the Crusades, when crusading noblemen wished to have their bodies preserved for burial closer to home.
Contemporary embalming methods advanced markedly during the American Civil War, which once again involved many servicemen dying far from home, and their families wishing them returned for local burial. Dr. Thomas N. Holmes received a commission from the Army Medical Corps to embalm the corpses of dead Union servicemen to return to their families. Military authorities also permitted private embalmers to work in military-controlled areas.
At one time, arsenic was used as an embalming fluid. However, arsenic has not been used as such for many years. There are concerns about the possibility of arsenic from embalmed bodies later contaminating ground water supplies.
Any clothing on the corpse is removed and set aside; jewelry, also, is inventoried. The corpse is then washed in disinfecting and germicidal solutions, shaved, and groomed. The embalmer bends, flexes and massages the arms and legs to relieve rigor mortis. The eyes are closed and kept closed with an eyecap that keeps them shut and in the proper expression. The mouth may be sewn shut, and a device is also employed to allow the embalmer to set the facial expression of the corpse.
External body cavities are packed with cotton soaked in cavity fluid or autopsy gel. A large plastic screw may also be threaded in place in the anus and vagina to ensure a proper seal. The corpse is dressed in tight-fitting plastic clothing to control leakage of any bodily fluids.
The actual embalming process usually involves four parts:
- arterial embalming, which involves the injection of embalming chemicals into the blood vessels, usually via the right carotid artery. Blood is drained from the right jugular vein. The embalming solution is injected using an embalming machine;
- cavity embalming, the suction of the internal fluids of the corpse and the injection of embalming chemicals into body cavities, using an aspirator and trocar;
- hypodermic embalming, the injection of embalming chemicals under the skin as needed; and
- surface embalming, which supplements the other methods, especially for visible, injured body parts.
Cosmetics are then applied to the corpse to make it appear more living and create a "memory picture" for the decedent's friends and relatives. An oily foundation is placed on the visible areas of the skin, and theatrical or mortuary cosmetics are placed on the corpse. A photograph of the dead person in good health is often sought, in order to guide the embalmer's hand in restoring the corpse to a more lifelike appearance. Blemishes and discolorations occasioned by the last illness, the settling of blood, or the embalming process itself are also dealt with at this time. Various funeral homes have different practices as to whether the corpse will be clothed during the time of application of the cosmetics, or whether the cosmetics will be applied first and the corpse clothed afterwards.
As for clothing the body, tradition has been for the decedant to wear semi-formal clothing (a suit jacket and tie for men; a dress for women); however, in more recent years, the family often chooses to dress the decedant in more casual wear (such as a T-shirt and blue jeans), especially if the deceased was young.
After the corpse has been dressed, it is placed in the coffin for the various funeral rites.
The foregoing describes the usual process for "cosmetic" embalming, wherein long-term preservation is not the goal; rather the natural appearance of the body is paramount.
Long-term preservation requires different techniques, such as using stronger preservative chemicals, multiple injection sites to ensure thorough saturation of body tissues, and -in the case of a body to be used for anatomical dissection- taking no blood drainage and doing no treatment of the internal organs.
Decomposing bodies, trauma cases, frozen and drowned bodies, and those to be transported for long distances also require special treatment beyond that for the "normal" case.
In the Netherlands embalming is not allowed except in the case of international transport of the corpse and in the case of members of the royal family, who choose individually for or against it.
Consumers should keep in mind that embalming is only meant to temporarily preserve the body of a deceased person. Regardless of whether or not embalming is performed, the type of burial or entombment, and the materials used - such as wood or metal caskets and vaults - the body of the deceased will eventually decompose. Modern embalming is done to delay decomposition so that funeral services may take place.
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