The Complete history of preserving the bodies of the recently deceased. Including a step by step process.
President Abraham Lincoln died on April 15th, 1865, mere hours after John Wilkes Booth inflicted the mortal gunshot wound, but his body had to survive a 19-day train ride across the country before being laid to rest in Springfield, Ill. And thanks to a recent discovery by a Union surgeon, the president looked as serene when he arrived as when he left. Death is never pretty, but we sure can come close.
Barring intervention, Lincoln’s corpse would have been well into the decomposition process a fortnight after death. Various chemical processes and bacterial endeavors leave the body swollen with gas, blotched skin, sunken eyes, and a host of other deformities. However, the embalming process perfected by Dr. Thomas Holmes of Columbia University put the kibosh on that deterioration, preserving the corpse long enough to reach its final destination. And while his revolutionary techniques laid the groundwork for modern embalming procedures, the practice of embalming dates back millennia.
Die Like an Egyptian
Embalming rituals are an ancient human rite dating back to early Egyptian attempts in 4000 BC. Prior to 4000 BC, Egyptians wrapped their dead in charcoal and cloth and buried them in the sand beyond the Nile flood plane. In the hot, arid environment, these bodies would eventually desiccate like beef jerky in a dehydrator. Some Egyptologists have suggested that this natural preservation inspired the practice of mummification, though its origins are still fiercely debated.
The Egyptian’s spiritual belief system of the time was based on the concept of an immortal soul, and dictated that life and afterlife were intrinsically connected. Egyptians believed that the vacated corporeal form gave power to the soul in the next world and that the soul would eventually return to physically reincarnate the corpse. You couldn’t very well have your body rotting away while you were away, could you? Hence the rise of mummification as a means of drawing the deceased’s soul back from the Netherworld. In total, an estimated 730 million Egyptians were mummified until the practice petered out in 700 AD.