People from ancient Egypt developed and made famous the technique of mummification, which was their way of embalming. For them, it had great religious implications, as it kept the body intact till the time it was reunited with the soul that had returned from traversing the netherworlds. Several other civilizations such as the Incas also utilized this science. However, the ones to truly master this art were the embalmers of the Han dynasty in China. Embalming was widely used during several different wars, where it enabled the bodies of soldiers to be returned (withstanding travel over long distances) to their home countries for burial.
The contemporary purpose of embalming dead bodies is to ensure better presentation during funerals and allows for an open casket ceremony.
Embalming is both an art and a science. The embalming discipline encompasses formal study in anatomy, thanatology, chemistry and specific embalming theory. However, this may vary from country to country. This theoretical study is complemented with practical instructions in a mortuary, and concludes with a formal qualification granted upon the passing of a final practical exam.
The three goals of embalming are sanitization, presentation and preservation (or restoration). The most commonly followed process of embalming a dead body starts with verifying that the person is in fact dead. There are a few methods the embalmers routinely use to verify this. Before beginning the embalming process, the body needs to be disrobed. Clothing and personal effects are to be kept aside. The preliminaries of the embalming process involve cleaning the body and breaking down rigor mortis. To do this, the corpse is washed with disinfectant and germicidal solution. Next, the features have to be set, which include a number of tasks to get the persons face to achieve a relaxed, calm expression.
The actual embalming process starts with injecting an embalming fluid into the body through the carotid artery. Typically, an embalming fluid contains a mixture of formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, methanol, ethanol and other solvents. The embalming solution is injected by a centrifugal pump into the body. The body is massaged to facilitate the outflow of blood and even distribution of the embalming fluid. If there is poor circulation of the arterial solution, it is injected through multiple points. Usually, an incision is made in the jugular vein, out of which blood and interstitial fluids leave the body after being pushed out by the embalming chemicals.
The next step to follow is draining of the internal organs of fluids and filling up the body cavities with embalming chemicals. This is done by making a small incision above the navel and pushing in a trocar (two foot long metal tube attached to a plastic hose) into the chest and stomach cavities. The hose is attached to an aspirator which sucks out the fluids from the internal organs. Once this is done, the same device is used to fill up these cavities with embalming chemicals. Upon completion, the incision is sutured close. This completes the preservation process.
The presentation process is termed as hypodermic embalming. It involves the injecting of chemicals under the skin to give color and a healthy glow to the body. The body is then cleaned once again and the parts that would remain exposed are moisturized. Cosmetics are usually applied to the face, and the hair may be trimmed. This is done to achieve a close a resemblance to the provided photograph. The very last process before the funeral is to dress the body. This is usually done in formal attire provided by the family. The body is then placed into the casket.
A normal embalming process takes several hours to complete. However, if the body has been exposed to trauma or has gone through an autopsy, the embalming may take much longer. In present times, embalming is mostly done to delay decomposition for a funeral. If it is being done for long-term preservation, then the process employs entirely different techniques. Stronger preservation chemicals and multiple injections to ensure thorough saturation of body tissues are used. Yet another process is adopted for the embalming of cadavers for anatomy study.