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.
embalming (ĕmbä´mĬng, Ĭm–), 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).
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.