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Techniques & Technologies

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Preserving the body

Anubis, a god associated with the afterlife tending a mummy.

Anubis, a god associated with the afterlife tending a mummy.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

Historically, bodies have been preserved naturally through freezing, cold or dry heat or, in the right climate, through burial in a particular type of soil. Artificially, various methods of embalming or evisceration - removing the organs - have also been used.

Why preserve the dead? It was usually done for religious reasons. In Ancient Egypt, mummification was performed because preserving the body intact was a requirement for resurrection. In Peru, mummies were produced through the drying of bodies from at least the 500s CE, also for religious reasons. During the military religious campaigns that took place between 1095 and 1291 (the Crusades), in which European Christian nations attempted to take the Holy Land (Jerusalem) from the Islamic Empire, many prominent members of the nobility, including King Louis XIX, died far from home. With no means of embalming available, their bodies were disembowelled, soft tissues cut off, bones boiled until they were free of all tissue, and returned to their homeland.

In response to such practices, in 1300 Pope Boniface VIII issued a papal bull (directive) which prohibited the cutting up of the dead for the purpose of transport and burial. This was interpreted as a ban on anatomical dissection by some members of the medical profession - which is why many people believe all dissection was banned by the medieval church.

Since the 1850s embalming has again been used in many countries for funeral purposes. This is normally part of a Christian tradition, where the body is temporarily preserved for viewing.

However, there is another tradition of European embalming, mostly associated with preservation of the dead for anatomical dissection and study. Towards the end of the 1600s techniques were developed in which coloured waxes were injected into organs and tissues to preserve them. This was a difficult and delicate procedure. Medical and anatomical schools preserved organs and bones in order to study differences between them and, by the 1800s, to see if changes in the organs gave a clue to the disease suffered by the individual.

From the late 1800s chemicals such as formaldehyde began to be used to disinfect and preserve human remains. New methods, such as plastination - in which tissues are impregnated with resins - have been developed since the 1920s. These allow bodies to be posed in dramatic postures, as seen in displays such as Body Worlds.


Related links

Techniques and Technologies:


R G Mayer, Embalming: History, Theory and Practice (New York: McGraw-Hill, fourth edition, 2006)

J Troyer, 'Embalmed vision', Mortality, 12/1 (2007), pp 22-47



The application of chemical preservatives to slow the natural decomposition of a corpse. Modern methods were greatly refined in the 1800s. Although they have been widely used in Europe, the custom remains most commonly used in North America. Formaldehyde is the primary embalming fluid used today. It is a preservative injected into the blood system to replace the blood which is drained out. Embalming fluid can also be pumped into the body cavities as well.