If asked, a person in the United States might state that embalming has been utilized in the country since colonial days. They understandably (and, on some level, appropriately) trace the practice of embalming back to the days of ancient Egypt. Embalming has been widely practiced in the United States for an extended period of time. However, the practice of embalming as a more generalized practice in the United States dates back about 150 years.

Definition of Embalming

Before diving deeper into the origins of embalming in the United States, considering the definition of embalming is important. Embalming is defined as “the art and science of preserving human or animal remains by treating them (in its modern form with chemicals) to forestall decomposition.”

A prevalent misconception exists regarding embalming. Many people believe that embalming stops the decomposition process. It does not. Rather, embalming slows down decomposition. In this day and age, embalming is used to permit the presentation of a deceased person at a viewing or funeral. 

Modern embalming is accomplished by injecting preservative chemicals into the arterial system of a deceased person’s body. At this juncture in time, as has been the case since the latter part of the 19th century, formaldehyde is the preservative chemical most widely used in North America in the embalming process. 

Development of Modern Arterial Embalming

Modern arterial embalming is the result of the work of three men: William Harvey, William Hunter, and John Hunter.

A physician, William Hunter was the first person to detail the human circulatory system. He accomplished this by injecting colored dyes into the veins and arteries of cadavers. William Hunter took the work of Hunter and applied it to slowing the decomposition process. He injected preservative chemicals into veins and arteries (as well as into body cavities) to slow the decomposition process. Finally, John Hunter (William’s brother) commercialized this process and began marketing embalming services directly before the start of the Civil War.

Arguably, the modern embalming process was not always put to good use. The case of Martin Van Butchell in London illustrates the point. Even before he embarked on a course of arguably abusing the embalming process, Van Butchell has built a reputation for being involved in dental quackery (something of a fraud of a dentist) and for riding a white pony about the city on which he had painted purple spots

When his wife passed, he had her embalmed and then displayed in the window of his dental office as a means of attracting business. (He contended his wife’s will directed him to do this, likely a false proposition on Van Butchell’s part.)

Civil War Casualties

By the end of the Civil War there were approximately 620,000 casualties. This number is not in concrete inasmuch as keeping track of the dead was challenging due to the high number of casualties. Thus, some historians estimate that the number of casualties actually reached 700,000. In any event, more deaths occurred on the battlefields of the Civil War than in any other war or military action involving U.S. troops.

Soldiers killed in battle at times were buried in battlefield graveyards. However, the reality was that families wanted the remains of their loved ones returned home. Because soldiers were dying in such high numbers and at a fast rate, collecting remains and transporting them homeward became highly challenging because of the nature of the human decomposition process. 

Due to these challenges, embalming began to be widely practiced in the midst of the Civil War to allow the remains of soldiers to be transferred home for funerals and interment. As an extension of this, the remains of loved ones were also in more presentable conditions for viewing and during funerals themselves. The modern funereal embalming is said have commenced in 1861, during the first year of the Civil War.

Embalming and Disease Prevention

Another benefit of modern embalming practices commenced at the time of the Civil War was disease prevention. A stark reality associated with the human decomposition process is that a biohazardous situation can be created. Dangerous disease-causing pathogens can be present as a human body decomposes. Because embalming significantly slows decomposition, embalmed remains can be presented at viewings and funerals without a risk of exposing attendees to potential heath risks. 

In the absence of embalming, care must be taken in regard to being near a body undergoing human decomposition after more than about 48 hours have passed. Unless some other method to slow decomposition has been used (refrigeration, for example), fluids begin to release from the body commencing at about the 48 hour mark, rendering the presence of disease-carrying pathogens being present at the scene of the death. In such circumstances, if contact must be made with human remains in this condition, appropriate personal protective equipment must be worn in order to prevent the spread of disease.