An article from BBC a few years ago outlines the art of the long-term embalming of the dead. The Russians have mastered this in an effort to keep Lenin’s body pristinely preserved. Once a day they must soak Lenin’s hands and face in a special solution and wash his entire body in the solution once a week. Am I the only one who thinks this is just a tad creepy?
Ilya Zbarsky, who was a member of Lenin’s embalming maintenance team at the Research Institute for Biological Structures in Moscow, told the BBC in an interview in 1999: “Twice a week, we would soak the face and the hands with a special solution. We could also improve some minor defects. Once a year the mausoleum was closed and the body was immersed in a bath with this solution.”
Such was the reputation of the Russians in the field of body preservation that Vietnam’s former leader Ho’s body was said to have been flown to experts in Moscow every year for a refresh.
So how would one prepare a body so that it will look unchanged for generations to come?
Embalming is the process of preserving the body from decay, and there are two approaches to the process, explains Karen Caney, national general secretary of the British Institute of Embalmers.
The most common approach, used by funeral directors, is to prepare a body so that it lasts until the body is buried.
“The embalming is designed to last literally until the time of the funeral. This is a fairly temporary preservation, so the body looks nice for the family.”
What is known as light embalming is carried out. This delays the process of decomposition, preserving the body’s tissues long enough for families to pay their last respects.
Embalming fluid – which typically contains the chemical formaldehyde – is diluted with water and injected into an artery, says Ms Caney.
“The sooner this is done the better, she says, as bodies start to alter from the moment someone dies.”
After a few weeks, the body’s internal bacteria takes over, but by then, the body will have been buried.
Most funeral directors are unlikely to have experience of long-term preservation.
Professor Sue Black, Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification College of Life Sciences at the University of Dundee, says that anatomy departments – in universities for example – are legally allowed to keep bodies for up to three years for students to work on.
“Fundamentally, the principle of embalming is like pickling – it’s the same principle as food,” she says. “To preserve a body for the long term, you would need to create a sterile environment.”
Read the rest of the article here.