embalming (ĕmbäˈmĭng, ĭm–) [key], practice of preserving the body after death by artificial means. The custom was prevalent among many ancient peoples and still survives in many cultures. It was highly developed in dynastic Egypt, where it was used for some 30 cent. Although the embalming methods of the Egyptians varied according to the wealth and rank of the deceased, bodies were usually immersed for several weeks in a soda solution after the body cavities had been filled with resins and spices. Viscera were sometimes embalmed separately and either replaced in the body or preserved in canopic jars. Traditional embalming methods were largely abandoned with the spread of Christianity, but preservation of bodies continued in Egypt for several centuries. The corpse was no longer eviscerated but was packed in salts and spices and then wrapped in linen sheets. Modern methods originated in the 17th cent. in attempts to preserve anatomical specimens. Although practiced in Europe, the custom of routinely embalming corpses before burial is most widespread in North America. Formaldehyde, the essential element in embalming fluids today, is injected into the vascular system as the blood is drained out. In some cases embalming fluid is also pumped into the body cavities. See funeral customs; mummy.
See C. G. Strub and L. G. Frederick, Principles and Practice of Embalming (4th ed. 1967).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.