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embalming (ĕmbäˈmĭng, 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).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(from balsam; the term originated from the fact that in antiquity aromatic substances and tars were used to embalm corpses), the steps taken to prevent a dead body from decomposing.

In embalming, all the body tissues are soaked in antiseptics and preservatives that hinder the activity of putrefactive bacteria and block the spontaneous disintegration of tissues. Embalming is performed for pedagogical, scientific, and legal purposes and to preserve the bodies of outstanding persons. Various methods are used, some to preserve the body temporarily, others to do so indefinitely. In antiquity embalming was done with balsams, a variety of plant fluids that prevent putrefaction. The creators of embalming were the ancient Egyptians, who for religious reasons did not bury the dead. There is no extant accurate description of the method they used. It is known that after the viscera and brain were removed, the body was soaked in various aromatic substances (such as myrrh and senna), wrapped in linens moistened with glue and gum, and allowed to dry (mummification). This method markedly altered the color and size of the tissues but preserved the body (mummy) for centuries.

In the Middle Ages, embalming was performed only to preserve bodies in burial vaults or to transport them to distant burial grounds. Among the embalming substances used were mercury salts (corrosive sublimate), arsenic compounds, zinc salts, alcohol, and other antiseptics usually injected into the blood vessels. Embalming fluids combining antiseptics and preservatives were widely used in the 19th century.

At the end of the century formaldehyde began to be used, and it led to the development of new and effective methods of embalming. Of particular interest is the method suggested by N. F. Mel’nikov-Razvedenkov (1893). It involves fixing the tissues with formaldehyde and soaking them in 96° alcohol and an aqueous solution of glycerin and potassium acetate. Bodies thus embalmed were preserved a long time. In 1924 the Russians V. P. Vorob’ev and B. I. Zbarskii devised a new method (subsequently improved by S. R. Mardashev) which was successfully used to embalm Lenin’s body and, in 1949, G. Dimitrov’s body.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.