Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The History of Embalming

Embalmed bodies on display for services during the Civil War.

Many funeral homes will require you to embalm the body of your deceased if you want an open casket viewing. And, like many industries, when they ask you if you want a viewing, they just add on the costs to the bill, stating that you will need to have the body embalmed, as if it is a fact. It is true that the funeral home may require it. But with some forethought and research, you may just be able to find one that doesn’t. Refrigeration is a valid alternative.
Western Civilization has lived on this American soil for almost 400 years and embalming has only been widely performed for the last 80 years. The embalming process disinfects the body from the inside out, preserving it, and dyes mixed in with the formaldehyde restore a life-like tint to the skin of the dead. I am going to come clean by saying that after my research, and given my spiritual proclivities, I am against the push of embalming for many reasons. Our bodies are our sacred temples, and I have spent the last two years cleaning out my temple, and ridding it of toxins and illness. I do not want it sewn closed, plugged up, and filled with chemicals after I die.
There is a natural order to the world. Our bodies, if buried, should be allowed to naturally decompose, without the potential of leeching toxic chemicals into the earth. If I am to become food for nature, why should I poison it? And, in my opinion, in a culture where we are already removed from the intimacies of death, making your loved one appear more life-like could potentially remove us more from its reality. For some people, seeing a life-like corpse could make it harder for them to accept the loss.
Embalming does not save the population from diseases associated with death. If that were true, morticians and undertakers themselves would carry a high mortality rate. The truth is morticians are at a greater risk of health threats due to exposure to embalming fluid than they are to all of the bodies that cross through their doors. In just the last ten years, OSHA has lowered the number for low level exposure with side effects from 3 parts per million to 0.1 parts per million of formaldehyde. What was deemed safe before, no longer is. What will we learn in another ten years? We are so keen to push for growth, that we often do so before the consequences can be weighed.
So why do we do it? Where did it start?
The ancient Egyptians perfected the art of embalming and mummifying the dead over 5,000 years ago, an art which was later lost to time. But the idea of embalming saw itself through many cultures, with varying degrees of success. During the Crusades, there are scattered reports of the alchemical process performed on fallen knights in order to return their bodies home for proper Christian burials. Many of the attempts to embalm during the Crusades were unsuccessful. My ancestor Saher de Quincey was not embalmed, but was buried in Palestine. His heart was returned home and interred there. We know the Egyptians practiced mummification as did the indigenous peoples of Peru and Chile. But many archaeologists believe that the reason they were so successful in preservation had more to do with the harsh and severe drying climates than the process itself.
In America, it was a war that divided our country that changed the funeral process. Embalming was developed during the Civil War as a means of preserving the bodies for transportation back home for burial, and was a practice only known to have been applied to Northern soldiers. Dr. Thomas Holmes experimented with preservative chemicals in his job as a coroner’s assistant in New York. He received a commission as a captain in the Army Medical Corps in Washington, D.C. during the War. He embalmed over 4,000 soldiers and officers for return home to the North.
A crop of “embalming surgeons” sprouted up in the battlefield. Some of these men embalmed unclaimed bodies to put on display in order to show off their work, which other soldiers found disgraceful. It was an expensive process and only families with wealth could afford to pay. Those who could afford it would then hope the surgeons could find their loved one among the dead on the battlefield. Along with good surgeons like Holmes, charlatans gauging grieving families for money emerged, too.
After the War, Holmes offered his services to the public for $100 a body, but eventually embalming fell into disuse due to both a lack of demand for its expense, and too few people able to perform the procedure. The classes for studying embalming consisted of a couple of days and the purchase of a gallon of formula. Embalming was originally a process of alcohol, arsenic, creosote, mercury, and turpentine, until the German chemist August Wilhelm von Hoffmann and Russian chemist Alexander Butlerov discovered formaldehyde in 1866.
In the 1920s, the funeral industry became highly profitable due to the physical losses of WWI. The industry began to involve the sale of caskets, embalming, grave vaults, funeral clothing, and other various paraphernalia. Embalming licenses were not universally distributed until the 1930s.
Embalmers are required to wear a respirator and full-body covering by OSHA while they work for their own safety. Yet, often in funeral homes, waste is flushed out into the sewer system or septic tank. Where does it go then? Shouldn’t that matter? Refrigeration is a valid alternative to embalming if a wait is required, even if the funeral home tries to deny it. Not all funeral homes have facilities for refrigeration, but many hospitals do. Other options are out there.
Embalming does not preserve the body forever. Embalming allows the body to decompose via dissolution and oxidation, as opposed to putrefaction and rot. The blood is replaced with a disinfectant and preservative solution, fixing the body from the inside out. After embalming, the body can only be attacked by airborne bacteria and molds. What it does do is allow for people to take some time in the planning of the funeral.
The main three purposes of embalming are disinfection, preservation, and restoration. In my mind, the last two steps remove us from the reality of what the death of our loved ones mean. Muslims and Jews consider embalming to be a desecration of the body. Hindus and Buddhists choose cremation instead of burial. Embalming is only a common practice in Canada and the United States.
Many funeral directors will not allow a public viewing without embalming, but a private viewing by family and close friends without it can be arranged. Modern funeral homes are forbidden by law from embalming your loved ones without your permission. There is absolutely no legal requirement for embalming. Some cemeteries have special requirements for the bodies interred there, but there are no universal legal laws.
Just for a bit more information, here are the ecological costs of burying embalmed bodies in the States. According to the website for Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve, a green burial cemetery in Ithaca, NY, each year 22,500 cemeteries in the U.S. bury about:
  • 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid
  • 30-plus million feet of hard woods for caskets
  • 90,272 tons of steel for caskets
  • 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete for vaults
  • 14,000 tons of steel for vaults
  • 2,700 tons of copper and bronze for caskets
  • On average, one cemetery buries 1,000 gallons of embalming fluid, 97.5 tons of steel, 2,028 tons of concrete, and 56,250 board feet of high quality tropical hardwood in just one acre of greenery.
One of the reasons we bury sealed caskets in concrete vaults is so that the chemicals of the embalming process cannot leak into the soil and water tables. The way we dispose of our dead requires us to waste more resources. The numbers are staggering to me. If it is our future we are concerned for, I cannot help but see the resources we would be saving if we returned to simpler burials of untouched bodies in simple wooden boxes, if boxes are used at all.


  1. Now that I've read this post I feel that I can answer your last one. I would either be buried without being embalmed and let nature take its course or be cremated. I am of Scandinavian descent, so the idea of being sent out in a flaming ship to Valhalla has always been appealing as well.

    Any thoughts on how the processing of the body could affect the spirit in the afterlife?

  2. Thank you so much for sharing! I think that's completely personal, but I always have thoughts. If you are completely attached to your body being properly and sacredly disposed of, whatever that means to you, than anything other than that could keep your spirit here. It's why, when death comes, how the body is cared for is about the deceased, and only the deceased. The shape of the funeral is really for those left behind to grieve.

    For people who do spirit work and journeying outside of the physical world, the idea of leaving our bodies behind us is easy, and in the spirit of moving forward, it would be an easy baggage to leave behind. We are more than our bodies. That said, I still care about how mine is taken care of after I die, and I would rather not be just another body on the assembly line of death- but that's what happens when a rite of passage becomes an industry. In a few weeks I'll be sharing some of the outside-the-box ideas I've come across.

  3. Great post Sarah! We at Schepp Family Funeral Homes often find our clients know very little about embalming.


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