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Embalming, in most modern cultures, is a process used to temporarily preserve a human cadaver[?] to forestall decomposition and make it suitable for display at a funeral. It has a long history, and other cultures had embalming processes that had much greater religious meaning.

History of embalming

Embalming has been practiced in many cultures. In classical antiquity, perhaps the Old World culture that had developed embalming to the greatest extent was that of ancient Egypt, who developed the process of mummification. They believed that preservation of the mummy empowered the soul after death, which would return to the preserved corpse.

Other cultures that had developed embalming processes include the Incas and other cultures of Peru, whose climate also favoured a form of mummification.

Embalming in Europe had a much more sporadic existence. It was attempted from time to time, especially during the Crusades, when crusading noblemen wished to have their bodies preserved for burial closer to home.

Contemporary embalming methods advanced markedly during the American Civil War, which once again involved many servicemen dying far from home, and their families wishing them returned for local burial. Dr. Thomas N. Holmes[?] received a commission from the Army Medical Corps to embalm the corpses of dead Union servicemen to return to their families. Military authorities also permitted private embalmers to work in military-controlled areas.

in 1867, the German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofman[?] discovered formaldehyde, whose preservative properties were soon discovered and which became the foundation for modern methods of embalming.

Modern embalming

Embalming as practiced in the funeral homes of the United States of America uses several steps.

Any clothing on the corpse is removed and set aside; jewelry, also, is inventoried. The corpse is then washed in disinfecting and germicidal solutions, shaved, and groomed. The eyes are closed and kept closed with an eyecap that keeps them shut and in the proper expression. The mouth is sewn shut, and a device is also employed to allow the embalmer to set the facial expression of the corpse.

External body cavities are packed with cotton soaked in cavity fluid or autopsy[?] gel, and the corpse is dressed in tight-fitting plastic clothing to control leakage of any bodily fluids.

The actual embalming process usually involves four parts:

  • arterial embalming, which involves the injection of embalming chemicals into the blood vessels, usually via the heart through a trocar[?];
  • cavity embalming, the suction of the internal fluids of the corpse and the injection of embalming chemicals into body cavities;
  • hypodermic[?] embalming, the injection under the skin of embalming chemicals under the skin as needed; and
  • surface embalming, which supplements the other methods, especially for visible, injured body parts.

Embalming chemicals vary in their composition, but most are based on formaldehyde and methanol (wood alcohol).

Cosmetics are then applied to the corpse to make it appear more living and create a "memory picture" for the decedent's friends and relatives. An oily foundation is placed on the visible areas of the skin, and theatrical or mortuary cosmetics are placed on the corpse. A photograph of the dead person in good health is often sought, in order to guide the embalmer's hand in restoring the corpse to a more lifelike appearance. Blemishes and discolorations occasioned by the last illness, the settling of blood, or the embalming process itself are also dealt with at this time. Various funeral homes have different practices as to whether the corpse will be clothed during the time of application of the cosmetics, or whether the cosmetics will be applied first and the corpse clothed afterwards.

After the corpse has been dressed, it is placed in the coffin for the various funeral rites.

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