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Embalming - History, theory, and Practice

The information you are about to read comes from the text book "Embalming History, Theory and Practice"  written by Robert G. Mayer. 

Embalming, as practiced today, is defined as "The chemical treatment of a dead human body to reduce the presence and growth of microorganisms, to temporarily inhibit organic decomposition, and to restore the dead human body to an acceptable physical appearance." 

Embalming and funeral historian Edward C. Johnson has written that, " Embalming is a means of artificially preserving the dead human body and it is one of humankind's longest practiced arts. An exhibit at the National Archeological Museum in Athens, Greece describes the care of the dead by the society of Ancient Egypt, circa 3000 BCE. Ancient Egyptians did not regard death as the end of life, but as an intermediary stage towards a better eternal life. Eternity was achieved by those who had lived a virtuoso life and were able to furnish their tombs and receive funerary offerings from their loved ones. The poor attained immortality through the mercy of the Gods. Released after death, the spiritual elements continued to exist as long as the body remained in a recognizable state, hence the development of mummification. 

"All the world fears Time, but Time fears the Pyramids" so says an ancient Arab proverb. Resting within those ancient tombs of stone, the embalmed and mummified dead, just as old as the pyramids themselves, awaiting eternal life. The purpose of embalming, as practised by those ancient Egyptians, was religious.

Embalming is a chemical method of bringing about temorary preservation of the dead. It has been and is employed by various cultures for various reasons throughout the world. In America during the second half of the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth century, embalming and viewing the body was a vital part of the American funeral. Since the latter half of the twentieth century, there has been a gradual movement toward more simplified disposition of the dead ofter minimizing viewing of the deceased and if viewed, doing so with or without standard embalming practices. 


Reverence for the dead os the basic ethical axiom of the funeral service profession. Preparation of the deceased human remains is humankind's means of ethically fulfilling our ingrained, ancient, emotive instinct care for the dead. As funeral service practitioners, we are charged with the maintenance of their moral and ethical responsibility, and it is important students and practitioners actively embrace this concept. 

British Prime Minister, William Evart Gladstone (1809-1898) Wrote:

"Show me the manner on which a nation or community cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender sympathies of its people, their respect for the law of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals."

Because this quote embodies a great ethical truth with power and eloquence, it has been cited many times by funeral service practitioners, no matter how often these words are uttered, their impact on our profession, our society, and humanity as a whole never wanes.

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