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The natural drying out of the body by solar heat (mummification) is the oldest method of preserving a corpse. The ancient Egyptians may have simply tried to dry corpses in the hot desert sands, or as in one of the chambers found at Thebes, in rooms which were artificially heated. Embalming is the artificial treatment of a corpse to prevent or delay its putrefaction. In ancient Egypt the technique consisted, according to Herodotus, of using an iron hook to draw out the brain through the nostrils, and then making a cut along the flank to remove the abdominal contents, which were washed and soaked in palm wine and infusions of spices, and then stored in "canopic" jars. The heart, as seat of intelligence, was removed, wrapped in linen, and replaced into the chest cavity. The cavity was filled with myrrh, cassia, and other spices before being sewn up; the body was then washed and wrapped from head to foot in fine linen. The Bible describes embalmers as "physicians" (Gen. 50:2), and mentions it (perhaps to provide local color) only with reference to Jacob and Joseph (Gen. 50:2–3, 26), who both died in Egypt. The statement that the process required 40 days (Gen. 50:3) is at variance with Herodotus' statement that it required 70, the period which the Bible assigns to the Egyptians' mourning for Jacob. In actuality, the mummification process might range between 30 and 200 days. The strong belief in an afterlife was what made preservation of the body so important in Egypt, in marked contrast to the situation in ancient Israel.

Today embalming before burial is widely practiced in the United States by undertakers, who inject a formalin solution into the blood vessels; but in Israel it is rare, being confined entirely to bodies being sent abroad for burial (in conformity with international regulations).


H.E. Sigerist, A History of Medicine (1951), 353–54; I. Thorwald, Science and Secrets of Early Medicine (1962), index. add. bibliography: L. Lesko, in: cane iii, 1764–66.

[Heinrich Karplus]

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em·balm / emˈbä(l)m/ • v. [tr.] [often as n.] (embalming) preserve (a corpse) from decay, originally with spices and now usually by arterial injection of a preservative: the Egyptian method of embalming. ∎ fig. preserve (someone or something) in an unaltered state: the band was all about revitalizing pop greats and embalming their legacy. DERIVATIVES: em·balm·er n.

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embalm impregnate (a corpse) with spices. XIII. ME. embaume — (O)F. embaumer, f. EM-1 + baume BALM.

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embalming (im-bahm-ing) n. the preservation of a dead body by the introduction of chemical compounds that delay putrefaction.