The Explainer: Embalming

I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.


I. Is that you, Mummy?


You can, salt it, turn it into a jam, pickle it, dehydrate it, or even freeze it: if it’s edible, chances are, it can be preserved for future enjoyment. Now I don’t want to ruin your dinner, but in a few days it’s the time to think of the dead, and what’s useful for food has turned out useful in preserving our dearly departed.

Take this daing. This is preservation using salt. This is a fish mummy.

Take this jar of jam. This is preservation using sugar. This is a strawberry mummy.

Take this jar of pickles. This is preservation using vinegar, a baby cucumber mummy. You can also preserve things in alcohol; in many bottles of lambanog you have raisins –which is a grape mummy- further preserved in alcohol. One of the most famous cases of preserving a body in alcohol is Admiral Horatio Nelson who was kept in a barrel of brandy. There was a rumor that alcoholic sailors kept drawing off the brandy, and the phrase “tapping the admiral” was born. But a body in alcohol isn’t a mummy, it’s either a temporary procedure before burial or a scientific specimen.

Take an air-dried ham, or a piece of beef jerky, or even the vegetables in your instant mami: they’re dehydrated, a pig, cow, and carrot mummy, respectively. Air-drying produces natural mummies, as we know from discoveries in the Andies, and our very own mummies up North.

And there’s your frozen everything in the supermarket. Your pork, beef, chicken mummies. For humans, it can be accidental, such as the discovery of a Stone Age man a few years back in the Alps. He’s now famous as the Tyrolean Ice Man.

But specifically freezing human remains with modern technology, is called Cryonics: preserving someone by keeping them in a super deep freeze. An urban legend that won’t go away asserts that Walt Disney is one of the most famous examples of someone in cryogenic deep freeze. He isn’t.

The first person to choose freezing was Professor James Bedford, a Californian frozen in January, 1967. A writer, Robert Ettinger, had published a book titled “The Prospect of Immortality” which speculated about today’s fatal diseases being reversed by future cures. So he started a fad. Which inspires a small number in the West who pay to have their heads or bodies frozen, in the hope some future age can bring them back to life.

There’s another kind of accidental, natural, preservation similar to how animal skins are preserved by making leather, or tanning. In Scandinavia and other swampy, cold parts of Europe, they have  bogs, where bodies have been preserved through a kind of natural tanning. Some of these bog men, as they’re called, look incredibly peaceful, until you then find out they were ritually murdered in often horrifying ways.

The Ancient Egyptians believed that so long as the body survived, the soul would, too. They originally buried their dead in the desert and must have discovered that somehow, they were preserved over time. Eventually the Egyptians perfected how to ensure a body’s preservation without leaving it to chance.

Let’s go back to our poor fish mummy over here. It’s been preserved for posterity through a combination of setting it out in the sun to dehydrate it, and pouring salt over it to help draw out liquids and keep the fish from decomposing.

Two Egyptologists, Bob Brier and Ron Wade some years back helped solve an ancient mystery. How, exactly, did the Egyptians mummify the dead?

They performed the first authentic Egyptian mummification in 2,000 years. They used reproductions of authentic tools and this is basically the process they figured out. It began with basically sticking a long wire up the nose, to stir the brain so it could ooze out. Then cutting a hole in the abdomen and taking out the internal organs, which were replaced with bags of natron, a kind of special salt; then the whole body was covered with natron, and left for 35 days. To cover one body, they needed 600 pounds of natron.

After that they discovered the body was completely dehydrated: from 160 pounds, the body weighed 100 pounds. Then all the internal cavities were washed with palm wine (remember, alcohol is a disinfectant and preservative), and rubbed with a mixture of the oils of frankincense, myrrh, palm, lotus and cedar. Then the body would be wrapped in linen and the linen soaked in resin, a kind of natural plastic from the sap of trees and plants.

No one was meant to do, what we take for granted today: looking at the features of departed royalty. At best, it was something other kings could do, as a rare privilege. Caesar gazed on Alexander the Great’s mummified features, and got depressed because Alexander had achieved far more by age 30 than Caesar had accomplished.

It took the modern era to bring the mummies of the great pharaohs back to center stage. Millions of words have been written, for example, on the mummy of Ramses II, of whom some historians say he was the pharaoh that Moses confronted to free the Israelites. We will never know for sure what Moses looked like, because the Jews did not believe in preserving the dead; but we know for certain what Ramses II looked like –and indeed, what many members of his dynasty looked like, because their mummies are with us to this day.

But beyond mummification, advances in understanding the human body in life and death brings us to embalming. Before we get to embalming though, we need to look at dissections.

The Anatomy Lesson famously portrays the quest to know the living through the bodies of the dead. Anatomy through dissection has been an integral part of medical science since the Renaissance. In the Enlightenment period, the thirst for knowledge couldn’t keep up with demand, and body snatching, or the theft of corpses buried in cemeteries, only to be dug up and sold for dissection, grew to be a public scandal and the stuff of short stories.

In recent years, Dr. Gunter von Hagens, a gruesome but fascinating German who has perfected what he calls “plastination,” a way of preserving bodies or body parts, caused a scandal by performing the first public dissection in a century; he followed this up with a series of anatomical dissections broadcast on television.

And it’s because of dissection that a technological leap in preserving human remains took place. That technological leap’s called embalming.

What embalming is, and its advances over the modern era, when we return.


II. Embalmer’s Tale

In refrigerated splendor in Batac, Ilocos Norte, Ferdinand Marcos lies in the darkness. When you enter the door, an automated system starts playing Mozart’s “Requiem,” and a spotlight turns on which glints off his medals.

All past processes for preserving human remains left them looking very un-lifelike. It took the American Civil War for a means to be found to preserve human remains in a manner that left them looking, if not alive, then shall we say, freshly-dead.

Embalming is justified on several grounds: hygiene, in that it preserves a body but disinfects it; for aesthetic appreciation, so that the dead look less dead; and to satisfy cultural and personal demands, that is, for the wake –and a wake was meant among other things, to ensure people weren’t buried alive. George Washington had a horror of being buried alive and so specified a wake for his funeral.

America which gave the world so many technological advances, is where embalming was born. The American Civil War resulted in horrendous casualties.

In Europe the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries saw Dr. William Harvey  figuring out that blood circulated; Dr. Frederick Ruysch and  Dr. William Hunter discovering that you could use the arterial system of a body to drain fluid and replace it with preservatives. The decades prior to the American Civil War had Alexander Butlerov and Wilhelm von Hofmann discovering formaldehyde, and  Jean Gannal offering the first embalming services in France.

With so much technology, what Americans did was turn a European scientific discoveries into an industry.

President Abraham Lincoln who was of a morbid frame of mind, took a great interest in embalming and directed the Quartermaster Corps to utilize embalming to allow the return of Union dead to their home towns for proper burial.

Dr. Thomas Holmes received a commission as a captain in the Army Medical Corps and was assigned to Washington, D.C. where he embalmed many army officers killed in battle. He reportedly embalmed over 4000 soldiers and officers.

When he realized the commercial potential of embalming, Holmes resigned his commission and began offering embalming to the public for $100. Originally, an arsenic solution was used, and then formaldehyde became the standard.

The pinnacle of embalming is represented by the remains of the Communist greats: Vladimir Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, embalmed in 1972 and Mao Zedong, embalmed in 1976 and, they say, Kim Il-Sung, embalmed in 199_.  The exception to this Socialist gallery of embalmed greats is Eva Peron, they say fantastically embalmed in 1952 until she was buried in 1974

Lenin, wanted to be buried next to his mother, but Josef Stalin had other ideas. An Immortalization Commission –don’t you love these Socialist bureaucratic terms?- was formed to preserve Lenin for the ages. And so far, so good, though it’s a massively complicated process. Lenin is periodically lowered into a bath composed of formalin, glycerine, alcohol every 18 months, and the atmosphere’s strictly controlled.

Now you can, if you want, contact Lenin’s embalmers and get the full Great Socialist Comrade treatment from anywhere from $15,000 to $100,000. But for the rest of us mortals, here’s how a body is embalmed.

The body is placed in a proper position on the embalming table with the arms laid over the stomach.

The body is washed with a germicide-insecticide-olfactant (that means, nice-smelling stuff). The insides of the nose and mouth are swabbed with the solution.

Rigor mortis (stiffness) is relieved by massage. (Rarely but sometimes, tendons and muscles are cut in order to place the body in a more natural pose if limbs are distorted by disease.)

Massage cream is worked into the face and hands to keep the skin soft and pliable.

Facial features are set by putting cotton in the nose.  The eyes are closed. This is usually accomplished with a small curved plastic disc called an “eye cap” placed under the eyelid. Perforations in the cap help hold the eye lid in place. The mouth gets a mouth former (cotton or gauze in the throat to absorb purging fluids). The mouth is closed. This is usually accomplished by the placing of a specially designed “tack” in the upper and lower jaw. Each tack has a fine wire attached. By twisting the two wires together, the jaw is thus closed and the lips are set to the natural lip line using a cream to retain the proper position and to prevent dehydration.  (Glue may be used on the eyelids and lips to keep them closed in an appropriate pose.) Facial hair is shaved if necessary.

The embalming solution is prepared. The modern embalming machine consists of a 2-3 gallon reservoir and an electric pump. A solution of approximately 8 ounces of fluid to 1 gallon water is prepared.

An incision is made over the carotid artery (where the neck meets the shoulder) or over the femoral artery (in the leg at the groin). The artery and vein are located and isolated.

A tube which is attached to a machine is inserted into the artery. A slightly larger tube is placed into the accompanying vein. This tube is attached to a hose to the sewer system.

The fluid is injected into the artery under pressure by the embalming machine. As the blood is displaced by the fluid going in, it is forced out of the vein tube and disposed of. The pressure forces the embalming fluid into the capillaries and eventually to the cells of the body. After approximately 3 gallons of solution are injected into the body, the blood has thinned and the fluid coming through the vein tube is mostly embalming fluid.

Arterial embalming is begun by injecting embalming fluid into an artery while the blood is drained from a nearby vein or from the heart. The two gallons or so needed is usually a mixture of formaldehyde or other chemical and water. In the case of certain cancers, some diabetic conditions, or because of the drugs used prior to death (where body deterioration has already begun), a stronger or “waterless” solution is likely to be used for better body preservation. Chemicals are also injected by syringe into other areas of the body.

The second part of the embalming process is called cavity embalming. A trocar — a long, pointed, metal tube attached to a suction hose — is inserted close to the navel. The embalmer uses it to puncture the stomach, bladder, large intestines, and lungs. Gas and fluids are withdrawn before “cavity fluid” (a stronger mix of formaldehyde) is injected into the torso.

The abdominal cavity is treated by the use of a hollow tube called a trocar that is used to aspirate gases and liquid contents under suction. A preservative chemical is introduced.

The anus and vagina may be packed with cotton or gauze to prevent seepage if necessary. (A close-fitting plastic garment may also be used.)

Incisions and holes made in the body are sewn closed or filled with trocar “buttons.” The body is washed again and dried and cream is placed on the hands and face to prevent dehydration.

The hair is shampooed and the finger nails cleaned; any missing facial features are molded from wax, head hair is styled, and makeup is used on the face and hands. The body is dressed and placed in the casket (fingers are glued together if necessary). The hair is combed or set.

This process, which uses less water in climates like ours, generally serves to delay decay for about eight weeks. Anything longer, and the injection of preservatives involves not one, but six arteries and spraying the body amyl acetate to prevent the growth of surface mold.

In “The Hour of Our Death,” Philippe Aries’ landmark history of the West’s changing attitudes towards death, there the macabre story of a monk who kept vigil over the remains of a beautiful woman. The monk, as the story puts it, was overcome with her beauty. Then the next day, after the monk had left, the woman woke up –she hadn’t really died. Nine months later, she gave birth, which tells us just how, exactly, the monk was overcome by the lady’s beauty. All’s well that ends well, though, because the monk came by on a visit and acknowledged his child, and in the process married the beautiful lady and stopped being a monk.

But in many minds lurks the idea that preparing our dear departed for their final rest, should avoid all opportunities to defile the deceased. What these precautions are, and how embalming reflects our own society’s attitudes, when we return.


My view

Whether mummies or zombies, the dead can frighten and fascinate us. But most of all, they are always with us, and we are, I think, fortunate in that death has fewer mysteries for us than it does for people in the West. Funerals are as an integral part of how our society not only copes with loss, but clings to what we believe counts: each other. In baptisms, weddings, and funerals, there is no politics, only people. Even love.

And so let me close with one of the best story I’ve heard in a long time, made all the more delicious because it is true. At a party a girl recounted to me how one of her boyfriends asked her to go out with him. It was at a wake. He came up to her and asked her if they could talk. She said, yes, why not. So he took her to a pew near the front of the chapel, where few people stay during the wake, and began to whisper sweet nothings into her ear. He proclaimed his undying love. She replied that she’d have to think about it –she wasn’t sure if she felt the same way.

Then came the clincher.

“Why,” she asked him, “did you decide to propose to me here, in a wake, of all places?”

The man’s eyes brightened. He looked at her intently and proceeded to explain.

“Look,” he said, “at how romantic this place is. There are lots of candles. And lots of flowers. It’s quiet. It’s peaceful. It’s nice and cold.” And as if this weren’t enough, be pointed to the coffin of the deceased and said, “and look, we even have a witness.”

That, obviously, was that, as far as the courtship was concerned. And that’s that as far as tonight’s episode is concerned. Happy Halloween.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.