Though embalming the dead has been done for millennia, modern embalming methods that rival those of the ancient Egyptians have only been around for about 160 years.
The Egyptians were known for their masterful ability to preserve the dead, but American techniques of the 19th Century were far cruder.
According to Robert W. Habenstein and William M. Lamers in The History of American Funeral Directing (Brookfield, Wisc.: Burton & Mayer, 1995, pg. 199), one technique involved disemboweling the corpse and packing the empty body cavity with charcoal. The corpse was then wrapped in a sheet that had been soaked in alum.
French Develop First Effective Modern Preservation Method
Most sources point to 1836 as the birth of modern embalming. That is when Jean Nicolas Gannal, a French chemist, preserved a corpse by injecting it with six quarts of acetate of alumnia through the carotid artery. His idea was that his formula could preserve corpses for medical study.
“Very quickly, however, he realized that his embalming method would also find a market among funeral directors,” Thomas J. Craughwell wrote in Stealing Lincoln’s Body (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007: pg. 6).
Funeral directors had been seeking a way that bodies could be left on display for a few days before burial. Craughwell suggests that it may had been a way to imitate the way bodies of royalty and other important people were displayed after death.
Gannal’s tests involved burying several bodies for 13 months and then exhuming them.
“When their coffins were opened, the dead embalmed by Gannal looked as fresh as the day they had been buried,” Craughwell wrote in Stealing Lincoln’s Body (pg. 7).
Sucquet Took Preservation One Step Further
One of Gannals contemporaries was J. P. Sucquet, another Frenchman who was also seeking an effective embalming method. His solution was to inject five quarts of a 20 percent solution of zinc chloride into a corpse through the popliteal artery. Besides preserving the body, it also gave the skin the appearance of white marble, according to Robert G. Mayer in his book Embalming: History, Theory, and Practice (Stamford, Conn.: Appleton & Langer, 1996, pg. 437-7).
Civil War Creates American Demand for Embalming
The Civil War created a need for embalming in the United States as loved ones sought to have the bodies of their fallen sons, brothers and fathers returned home for burial. As such, embalming was done in military camps before shipping a body home.
“President Lincoln 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,” according to the Wyoming Funeral Directors Association web site.
Holmes Develops an American Preservation Method
Dr. Thomas Holmes was a captain in the Army Medical Corps during the Civil War. He was assigned to Washington D.C. where it is said that he embalmed more than 4000 soldiers killed in battle.
When Holmes realized the commercial potential in some of the methods the developed, he resigned from the army and began offering embalming to the public for $100, according to the Wyoming Funeral Directors Association web site.
No War, No Need For Embalming
Following the Civil War, embalming fell out of popularity. Most people died in their home towns where ice could be used to preserve the body until burial. Another reason for its falling out of fashion was that there were too few undertakers who could do embalming.