Artificial Preservation of Human Remains

1 Conversation

In an exhibition room somewhere sits a man at a chess table. He has done this countless times before - sitting alone, contemplating the chess pieces while people walk past him. Some give him no more than a passing glance; others stop to stare curiously, and the more brazen sometimes seat themselves in the opposite chair. Their presence does not distract him.

Despite his thoughtful pondering of the Queen's men - his elbows are on his thighs, his chin on his hands, his eyes moodily gazing ahead - the Chess Player is obviously dead. For one, he has no skin, and his back has been cut to reveal his spinal cord with all its nerves in their intricate glory. He is also naked. But there is little else to suggest that this corpse's life is over. There is no stench of putrefaction in the air, no oozing of liquid from orifices. His flesh is pink and healthy, and his muscles are a brawny red.

The Chess Player is a preserved cadaver.

Preserving Human Cadavers

Cadaver preservation is defined as the process of chemically treating a dead human body, or parts of it, to protect it from the forces of decomposition. Some preservation methods confer temporary protection, such as modern embalming; others create permanent or semi-permanent specimens that may last anywhere from several years to several centuries. (The word 'artificial' in the title is to separate deliberate preservation from natural preservation of corpses - that is to say, preservation that occurred without human intervention).

To clarify the confusion between the terms mummification and embalming: embalming is usually used to indicate the process by which a corpse is treated to temporarily ward off decay until after its funeral; mummification traditionally suggests a more enduring preservation of the dead body, and involves the drying-out of the corpse.

The Need for Preservation

Long before early practitioners of medicine began dissecting corpses to study the human body, people have been preserving dead bodies and/or body parts. Some of the reasons are as follows.

Religion and beliefs

In ancient cultures steeped in the belief of a bodily continuation of life after death (such as the ancient Egyptians), preservation of corpses was necessary if the dead person was to bring his body (and his possessions) into the underworld without the embarrassment of having various parts falling off. Unlike religions that viewed death as a journey of the soul to a spiritual world, treatment of cadavers and the rituals accompanying their deaths - especially of dignitaries - were often complicated and dedicated to ensuring the body that housed the person's spirit remained intact, lest the spirit be lost.

Some other cultures treated their dead as deities, 'fed' and clothed them, and in times of tribulation brought their problems to the dead.

While many primitive tribes, especially the Jivaro Indians, shrink heads as an act of war, they are also compelled to do so by reasons of ritual and belief. It was common belief that possession of a shrunken head would simultaneously bestow good fortune upon the warrior who claimed the head and appease the spirits of his ancestors (who were probably slain by enemy tribes); failure to exact revenge in this fashion was asking for trouble from the ghosts. These primitive cultures also believed that, in shrinking the enemy's head, they were preventing the malevolent spirits from either exacting revenge or making it into the afterlife where it could get at dead ancestors. Possession of such a gruesome trophy was also believed to boost a man's own personal power, and was the mark of a true warrior.

Another form of mummification practised by the Shongin Buddhists in Japan, also for religious reasons, will be discussed later in its own section, so as not to ruin the fun for the reader.


Almost everybody knows of ancient Egyptians mummifying their dead so that they could reach the Afterlife; however it was revealed in the writings of Roman administrator and historian Dio Cassius (150-235 AD) that embalming was also practised in Egypt to solve the problem of burying their dead in a valley that was frequently flooded, and to avoid unsanitary conditions caused by corpses mixing with drinking water causing more deaths.

In present times embalming is practised for purposes of disinfection, to protect persons coming in direct contact with a corpse that may have been infected with pathogenic microorganisms from becoming similarly infected, and to prevent flies or other vectors from transmitting the disease to other human beings.


For millennia people have been intrigued by the mysteries of the human body. In places where the social climate was permissible, corpses were dissected and their insides probed, and the knowledge gained added to the repository of insights into human anatomy; wherever dissection was considered a defilement of human bodies, physicians were reduced to trying to figure out the functions of human organs without ever having actually laid eyes of them - usually resulting in gross medical blunders, such as the Father of Chinese Medicine Huang Ti's assertion that the spleen was responsible for the senses of taste, and that the thoracic, abdominal and pelvic cavities were for storing the body's 'sewage'.

Despite the fact that the long line of physicians and anatomists dating all the way back to Herophilus have cumulatively figured out the inner workings of the human body, the fact remains that the only people who have had the privilege of seeing internal organs and muscles and nerves are typically those who performed the dissections themselves. While it is true that medical students are still being instructed in gross anatomy at many institutions, how often is it that one gets to see a corpse who suffered tapeworm infestation of the brain? And as for the general public - try asking the average layperson where the human heart is located, and see for yourself what their convictions are.

There was a time when there was no technology for preserving human specimens. Dead bodies had to be dissected fresh if the physicians were to get a good look inside; within days, especially during the hot summer months, putrefaction had set in to the point where only the very brave and the olfactory-impaired would still attempt dissection. But with the development of methods and chemicals of extending the 'lives' of dead tissue, medical anomalies such as twenty-pound teratomas and relatively unusual pathological manifestations could now be preserved for the documentation purposes, as well as the instruction of students in medical or biological sciences. Tissue sections could be made for the medical student to scrutinise, saving the time that might have been spent preparing one fresh specimen for studying ten prepared ones instead; indeed, with the advent of plastination, organ or body part specimens could be prepared that could be handled without worry of a careless hand destroying key blood vessels or fingers becoming numb from formalin. Newcomers to the field could study anatomy without worrying about the risk of contracting infections from fresh specimens, say the lungs of a person who had died of tuberculosis. Furthermore, organs and bodily systems could be studied in the context of the human body, instead of being isolated from it or simply as two-dimensional slices. On the other hand, cadavers could be used and re-used in the gross anatomy lab, instructing semester after semester of students, when once their useful lives did not extend past a week.

And for the first time, anatomical museums could throw open their doors to the public, for the average man to see sights that had previously been reserved for those in specialised professions, to understand for the first time what was really inside of him. While illustrated plates and coloured diagrams are faithful two-dimensional representations, they don't hold up a candle to the Real McCoy. And while many medical institutions still rely on the good old formalin preservation method, professionals and students alike have Professor von Hagens to thank for plastinated human specimens that no longer stink of preservatives.

And thanks to the Egyptians, we now know that Ramses II was a redhead, and that Queen Hetep-Heres II daughter of Cheops, had blond hair. So much for dark-haired Cleopatra stereotypes.

Public awareness

Tell the average smoker that the tar from his cigarette will coat his lungs, clog up his alveoli and eventually cause lung cancer, and the whole conversation will probably be dismissed five minutes after. Inform hardcore drinkers of the possibility of liver cirrhosis in their near future, and the response elicited will range from annoyance to carelessness. But put them in a room full of specimens of blackened lungs and diseased livers and cancerous organs, and even the most obstinate will start to think, This could be what I look like inside.

What words, diagrams and illustrations have failed to convey, actual preserved specimens of human bodies have made clear for the average layperson who has seen such specimens. From a series of studies carried out upon visitors to Body Worlds, the following results were obtained: 59% of the visitors had decided to pay more attention to their health in the future (including 10% which had, upon seeing tar-coated lungs, sworn off smoking). 36% of those who had previously not participated in organ donation programs declared they would do so.

Art and aesthetics

Defenders of Professor Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds may be gratified to learn that the posing of bodies and body parts as art forms began not with von Hagens, but with late 1600s anatomists who began collecting and exhibiting human specimens. These cadavers were preserved (either in alcoholic preservatives in sealed jars - 'wet' - or injected with resins or wax and then dried - 'dry'), coloured, costumed and subsequently displayed in glass cases or as free-standing models. Perhaps some of these anatomists did what they did out of a desire to glorify the human form, or to cater to their own morbid fascination - and then there are those who assert that Frederick Ruysch did it all to audaciously show the world that he had every right to collect and exhibit human remains without the consent of the anatomised.

Tribal warfare and revenge

When the Jivaro Indians cut off the heads of their enemies for shrinking, 'knowledge', 'comfort' and 'art' were probably the last things on their mind. Instead, the harvesting of enemy heads, which was practised by many primitive tribes from the Shuar in South America to the Dayaks of Borneo, was an act of war - to demonstrate triumph over the enemy, the proving of a warrior's manhood or as an exaction of revenge.


For people who die far away from their homes and are to be brought back for burial, modern embalming offers their families time to have the bodies transported back home without being ravaged by the powers of microbial corruption. This trend apparently started with Alexander the Great, but never really caught on until the American Civil War when, with the success of Thomas Holmes, everybody suddenly wanted their dead embalmed.


Some ancient civilisations preserved their dead not because they believed in the afterlife, but because they were loath to part with family members. The fact that many of these mummies were 'kept around' for some time before being interred - as evidenced, for example in the Chinchorro tribe, by the repainting of death masks and damage to the area of the corpses' feet, suggesting that they must have been stood upright - and the fact that many of the earliest mummies were of children and babies suggest that it was the mothers who first practised mummification in an attempt to keep their young with them.

In the modern age of embalming and corpse preservation, there are many who have elected to have their bodies embalmed, preserved, even cryogenically frozen. Part of this springs from a natural revulsion of death and corruption by microorganisms (death being taboo in most societies), the desire to spend death in a more 'civilised' manner, and from the romantic desire of being resurrected centuries into the future - although there have been no successful attempts as yet of reviving a cryogenically frozen corpse.

At the very least, modern embalming allows open-casket funerals and gives people the comfort of seeing their loved ones dignified and serene in their caskets, instead of desiccated and wrinkled from the hours spent in the morgue; furthermore it ensures that granny doesn't smell bad at her funeral.

The History of Human Preservation Techniques

Early mummifiers: Who really came first?

When the word 'mummy' is mentioned, one might be forgiven for thinking that it was the Egyptians who first invented this technique of preserving corpses. However, despite the fact that the Egyptians popularised mummification, credit for being the first to practice mummification goes to the Chinchorro, the sophisticated fishing tribe inhabiting the northern coast of what is now Chile, who were embalming their dead as early as 6000 BC1. There are two phases of mummy-making amongst the Chinchorro. The early phase encompassed 5000-3000 BC, during which time 'black mummies' were produced. The embalmers first disassembled the body by removing the skin, head and limbs, defleshing the corpse and removing the internal organs. The internal organs were treated to prevent decay, and the bones were dried with hot ashes before the body was reconstructed, reinforced by twigs tightly bound with reeds. Wooden supports were often placed along the spine and limbs, and the body cavity was filled out with fibre or feathers. Once the body had been reassembled, the skin was replaced and patched up wherever needed with sea lion or pelican skin before the entire body was coated with ash paste and the face covered with a clay mask which was subsequently painted with black manganese so that each corpse looked alike.

Later, around 2500-2000 BC, the Chinchorro developed a new technique of body preservation, this phase marked by the production of 'red mummies' – bodies that had been painted with red ochre instead of manganese. By this time they had abandoned the practice of disassembling bodies, electing instead to remove the internal organs via various incisions in the torso and shoulders. (The corpse was nevertheless still subjected to decapitation). A wig made from tassels of human hair and a clack clay hat were also fashioned for the corpse; the skin was seldom returned to the body in this phase.

The mummification trend would spread and evolve among the ancient Peruvian tribes including the Nazca and Chiribaya folk in the desert, and the Amazonian Chachapoyas 'Cloud People'. Most of these corpses were mummified sitting down, with knees drawn under the chin and hands positioned near the face, with the jaws hanging open from the passing of rigor mortis. (And if you're thinking this sounds like Edvard Munch's 'The Scream', you're absolutely right - he was inspired by a Peruvian mummy on display at a Paris museum). Dehydration of the body was natural: the upright position of the bodies allowed fluids to be drained by gravity, while the flesh was preserved and protected in swaths of decorated cloth.

But are the Chinchorro really the first to mummify their dead? There are scientists who say that the Melanesians are the real pioneers of mummification, although there is as yet no physical evidence of these. The Australian aboriginal mummies were sun-dried in a sitting position and placed on an elevated platform (either the branches of a tree or a raised wooden platform) to prevent dogs from getting at them; their orifices were sometimes sewn shut and their bodies smoked; their fat was removed from their bodies, mixed with red ochre and smeared on the skin. Apparently, the purpose of mummification was to keep relatives around for a little longer - for ten days mourners kept silent vigil, and guards were posted beside the corpse to fan off flies; the body was then interred, and the skull claimed by the nearest relative as a drinking cup.

The people living on the islands north of Australia had a more unusual, if grotesque, way of preserving their dead. The cadavers were allowed to sit and bloat for a few days before being placed in a canoe and cast away from land. Somewhere along the line its skin would be peeled off and the corpse eviscerated (and the cavity filled with palm pith) and de-brained before being brought back to shore and left to dry tied to a wooden frame. The people made sure the body dried out properly by making small holes in the knees, elbows, hands and feet to allow drainage of bodily fluids; as a macabre twist, the tongue, palms of the hand and soles of the feet were removed and presented to the surviving spouse. When the mummy had fully dried (after several months) it was decorated with seashell eyes, grass and seeds, painted with red ochre, and then it moved back in with its husband or wife - serving as a centre post item in the house.

The Incas and freeze-drying

Unlike many other practitioners of mummification, the Incas relied heavily upon Mother Nature when it came to preserving their corpses. Their habit of sacrificing human lives atop high mountains produced 'Ice Mummies' - mummies created by freeze-drying - usually surrounded with riches, supposedly to accompany the dead to the gods. However, the Incas also had methods of artificial preservation, and apparently treated their preserved dead like living gods, 'feeding' and clothing them, parading them at important festivals and consulting them in times of misfortune - a practice that the Spanish conquistadors of 1532 were uncomfortable with, and immediately put a stop to by destroying as many of these mummies as they could find... after the dead had been plundered of their gold.

The Egyptians

The Egyptians, with their beliefs of a somatic afterlife wherein a dead person would carry his body with him into the underworld, were the trendmakers for the technique of body preservation through the process of drying.

Although mummification was practised for the most part of early Egyptian history, the creation of the earliest mummies was most probably accidental. Because of the annual flooding of the Nile Valley, the Egyptians had to bury their dead in the dry, hot sand or rocky regions of the surrounding deserts. Some ancient bright-eyes must have noticed that the dry conditions had favoured the dehydration and subsequent preservation of some bodies buried in these shallow pits for no doubt knowledge of this came into play during the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties2 (c. 2600 BC) by which time Egyptian religion had evolved to revolve around the achievement of life after death, and the Egyptians (probably) began mummifying their dead intentionally so that every dead, mummified Egyptian would become a second Osiris3.

The mummification technique basically consists of two stages: embalming and wrapping. Following the death of a person, his body is taken into a tent known as the Ibu or 'Place of Purification', where it is washed with palm wine and rinsed with water from the River Nile. All the internal body parts representing the initial sites of decay are quickly removed, starting with those in the torso. These are subsequently washed and dried with a salt called natron4 before being placed in alcohol solutions in canopic jars. (Later, when the ritual had evolved to returning the organs to the body, empty jars continued to be buried alongside the body to symbolically protect the organs). The brain is smashed and scrambled and carefully pulled out through the nostrils with a long hook but, unlike the other internal organs, is later tossed out. The heart, believed to be the residence of the spirit5, is left untouched, because the dead person would need his spirit in the afterlife.

The body is then covered and packed with natron, and left to dry out for about forty days6. When the body has desiccated completely, it is washed with Nile water again and covered with oils to maintain elasticity of the skin, and then fleshed out by stuffing sawdust, leaves and linen into the body so that it would resemble a human being instead of beef jerky, so that the dead person's ka and ba, which had left the body at the time of death, could recognise their body and be re-unified with it. Having completed the embalming process, priests would wrap the body in hundreds of yards of linen: first the head and neck and digits, separately, and then the limbs, with amulets placed in between the layers to ward off mishaps. Liquid resin is painted on the linen bandages to glue the layers together. The resulting form is then covered with a piece of cloth bearing the painting of the god Osiris, and then the shroud goes on, strapped in place with linen strips.

In a startling display of overt determination to preserve the body, the corpse is placed in not one but two coffins, one inside the other, and is deposited into a burial chamber, which is subsequently sealed.

(Unfortunately, for the Egyptians, this method of preservation only extended to the mortal shell of the person, namely the skin, bones and hair, as the natron and resins conferred only temporary protection to the flesh and organs against decomposition. If getting into the Afterlife meant having everything with you, then no akhs would have made it into the Underworld at all, what more to say beyond).

Mummification was initially so prohibitively expensive that only nobility could afford being mummified; the majority of the populace was consigned to the necropolises. By 1550 BC, however, the mummy industry was booming and practically anybody who could afford it was mummified and promised eternal life. The tradition stopped sometime between the fourth and seventh century AD when many Egyptians converted to Christianity - by which time Egypt had made over 70 million mummies.

Other practitioners of mummification

Mummy-making cultures are scattered across the globe. Among these are the Palomans who, as early as 4000 BC were salting their corpses to prevent decay and wrapping them in mats of reed (and then burying them under their houses); people of the Aleutian Islands of Southwest Alaska, who desiccated their dead with herbs and grasses, and preserved the corpses in cool, dry caves; and the cave-dwelling goat-herding Guanches of the Canary Islands, whose mummification techniques suggest a link with the ancient Egyptians; the Ibaloi tribe in the Kabayan island of the Philippines, whose practice of mummifying their dead tribal leaders spanned 1200 to 1500 AD7, and was curtailed by Spanish colonists; and the Scythians (a multi-tribed people who inhabited southern Russia from the eighth to the fourth century BC), who are renowned for their mummified kings.

There is a good account of what happens to the Scythian corpses, written by the Greek writer Herodotus. According to him, the cadaver’s viscera was cleaned out and the body cavity filled with a preparation of chopped cypress, frankincense, parsley-seed and aniseed, before the opening was sewn up and the body was encased in wax. The corpse was thereafter placed on a wagon and carted around to the various tribes – whose populace, upon viewing the corpse, was required to sever a portion of his ear, cut his hair short, make a circumference cut on his arm, pierce a hole in his forehead and nose, and (ouch) drive an arrow all the way through his left hand. After every villager had suffered pain, the body was taken to Gerrhi (the most remote area of the Scythian territory) for burial. The king’s servants followed him in death, being killed on the spot by strangulation. As if this massacre weren’t enough, another sacrifice would take place on the first anniversary of the king’s death, whereby fifty of the dead king’s best attendants were killed (strangulation again) along with the fifty most beautiful horses in the royal stables. Their viscera were subsequently removed and their abdomens stuffed with chaff and sewn shut. The horses were buried in a large circular grave around the king’s burial mound, posed galloping; a mummified attendant was posed upon each horse, staked down through the spinal cord to the beast. The end-product: a dead king surrounded by a mummy cavalry, protecting him in death.

The strange tale of auto-mummification

A mummy is usually made from a corpse by priests or people specialising in the trade – but what of people who mummify themselves? Strange as it may sound, there is a form of self-mummification practised by Buddhist priests as far back as the first millennium, which has continued to modern times. This grotesque form of auto-preservation was apparently pioneered by the Buddhist priest and mystic, Kuukai, who died at the temple complex of Mount Koya on 23 April, 835 – and has been emulated by an estimated sixteen to twenty-four priests of the Shongin thought of esoteric Buddhism in Japan until the practice was outlawed towards the end of the 19th century8. Today these mummies (called sokushinbutsu) can be found on the main island of Honshu, preserved at a number of Buddhist temples.

This act of auto-mummification is in fact an elaborate, prolonged form of suicide drawn out over the course of about a decade. The first step towards becoming a Buddhist mummy is a change of diet, whereby the priest undertaking the task is restricted to eating nuts and seeds found in the forests around the temple, during which time he is to subject himself to physical hardship in all forms. By the end of a thousand days, almost all the fat in his body will have been eliminated.

The next thousand days involve an even more drastic change of diet – the priest now being allowed to eat small amounts of bark and roots from pine trees. Because humans were never designed to eat pure cellulose, this makes a living husk of a man of the priest, who will now have the outward appearance and hydration level of a skeleton. Towards the end of this second phase, the priest also begins drinking a special tea made from the sap of the urushi tree – which, while it makes excellent lacquer for bowls and furniture, is also poisonous to humans. The tea, which induces vomiting, sweating and urination, serves both to dehydrate the priest even further and to create a body so toxic that anything that tried to eat the priest's body after he was dead would be similarly poisoned.

The priest's final days (about another thousand) are spent entombed in a stone room barely large enough for a man to assume the lotus position of meditation. Air is conveyed into the room via a tube, and is supplied only for as long as the priest is alive to ring a bell. When he finally perishes, the tube is removed and the tomb is sealed.

Of course, the fact that there are only about two dozen mummies of this sort bears witness to the fact that the ideal conditions9 were not achieved for every priest who practised auto-mummification; however, out of respect, these 'failures' were sealed back into their tombs after their conditions had been revealed10. Those who had succeeded were immediately raised to the rank of Buddha.

Why attempt to mummify oneself? Or rather – if one were so eager for suicide, why choose a method that causes incredible suffering to oneself? Simply because this is religion and not suicidal masochism.

The Buddhists believe that everything in this world that can be perceived by the five senses is simply an illusion that prevents a person from seeing the truth11, which is that a person is part of a greater being that stands separate and beyond the world we perceive. As long as a person remains blind to this truth, he will be continually reborn in and endless series of illusionary lives; to break this vicious circle, Buddhists monks aim to separate themselves from the world so that at death they become One with this greater being who is Buddha, and thus achieve Nirvana.

Thus there are several sects of Buddhism whose priests are trained to deny the importance of their physical bodies through the endurance of various hardships, the principle being that as a priest becomes more like Buddha, the less he will be concerned about himself. In doing so, devotees are also desensitized of their fear of death – although, conversely, they do not seek it either, as you might think of the priests who perform this feat. Rather, auto-mummification is practiced by men of senior age to push the limits of their ability to ignore their physical manifestation – and also to leave a monument of their beliefs for those who come after them.

Food pickling techniques

Some very famous corpses were preserved, not by special embalming techniques, but using the same methods for preserving food12: the body of Alexander the Great was kept in a sticky suspension of honey for his return trip to Macedonia; centuries later, Horatio Nelson was transported back home from the Battle of Trafalgar soaked in brandy.

Head shrinking

The practice of head shrinking has been commonplace among many primitive tribes around the world - the most widely understood of which is the Jivaro-Shuar tribe of South America. The procedures vary little, but for this section, the protocol of the Jivaro will be illustrated.

The head used is that of an enemy felled in battle, and is harvested on the spot. Whether or not the victim is alive or dead while being decapitated is left to the warrior, but the head is generally cut off below the neck with a section of the skin from the chest and back attached. Once decapitation is complete, the warrior retreats, lest some braver enemy gets it into his skull to do the same to him, carrying the decapitated head with his head-band or a section of vine.

The actual head-shrinking process is carried out alongside a river safely removed from enemy territory, and takes about a week as it is carried out in between other daily activities. A slit in the neck and up the back of the head facilitates the removal of the skin and hair from the skull, which is discarded into the river as a gift to the pani, the anaconda. The eyes are then sewn shut with fine native fibre and the lips, closed and skewered with little wooden pegs, which will later be replaced with dangling strings.

The head then goes into a sacred boiling pot13 or cooking jar, in which it is simmered for an hour and a half to two hours (care is taken that the head is not cooked for too long lest the hair falls out). The cooked head is dark and rubbery, and now about a third its original size. This glove-like skin is turned inside out and removed of all residual flesh by scraping with a knife, turned right side out again and the rear slit sewn together.

On the last day of work, the warriors take their shrunken heads into the forest where the first tsantsa celebration takes place, wherein they make holes in the top of the head for a neckpiece to be inserted so that the trophy may be worn around the warriors' necks.

Despite the barbarous implications of this ritual, the Jivaro Indians were clearly concerned about portraying their victims as they looked in live, and took utmost care to prepare the shrunken heads to maintain the likeness.

The beginnings of arterial embalming

Later techniques of preserving human corpses and specimens consisted of injecting chemicals into the bloodstreams of the dead. Many of these early works involved the injection of metal alloys - corpses that had been dried and treated with oils were injected with metal to highlight their arteries. Some of these preserved cadavers have lasted over 200 years and are on display at the Italian Museum of Anatomy.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), the man for whom one field was obviously not enough to shine in, was probably the first to inject chemicals into the specimens that he dissected and drew. Following Dr. William Harvey's (1578-1657) discovery of the human circulatory system14, Danish physician Dr. Frederick Ruysch (1665-171715) successfully pioneered arterial embalming by injecting preservative chemicals (some say alcohol) into the blood vessels of his subjects; unfortunately Ruysch wasn't much of a record keeper and thus much of his secrets have been lost. Interestingly, Ruysch seems to have been among the first artistic anatomists, one who made artistic arrangements of the organs and tissues he'd preserved and dioramas assembled from body parts and foetal skeletons in melodramatic poses. There are some who may be thankful that none of this has survived to present time, but a few have been drawn in meticulous detail by the engraver Cornelius Huyberts, and photographs of Ruysch's collection of decorated babies in jar have been documented in a series of photographs by Rosamond Purcell.

Arterial embalming in England

However it is not Ruysch but the Scottish anatomist Dr. William Hunter (1718-1783) who is credited for being the first person to successfully adopt arterial injection as a means of preservation. With his brother John, Hunter developed an improved method of embalming which involved the replacement of blood in the cadaver's body with mercury (although there are reports of Hunter using essential oils, alcohol, cinnabar, camphor, saltpetre and pitch or rosin in embalming a body, with the final desiccation effected by placing roasted gypsum in the coffin).

Hunter's most attention-catching feat, however, was the embalming of the wife of a dentist, Martin van Butchell16, whose advertisements of his trade in the St. James Chronicle17 were apparently not enough (in his eyes) to catch the attention of the public that he felt compelled to display his dead wife in his London home. The act, predictably, attracted a great deal of flak from the public, who felt that van Butchell was simultaneously exploiting his wife's demise and a loophole in their marriage settlement which provided that van Butchell would continue to receive an income so long as Mary was above ground. When Butchell finally remarried, his second wife was understandably upset about having the first wife around, and so Mary was sent off to John Hunter for his museum where, 166 years later (in 1941), she was accidentally cremated by a German incendiary bomb that fell upon the museum.

Honoré Fragonard's grotesque museum

In the French town of Maisons-Alfort is a museum dedicated to strange exhibits. At first glance, they seem to be specimens from an anatomy museum - posed figures of both man and beast. At second glance, you notice what's awry about them - none of these exhibits have any skin.

During the time the two schools of anatomy were in dispute over anatomical models18 and embalmers of the 18th century were dedicated to inventing preservative solutions to improve embalming technique, French anatomist Honoré Fragonard's attention was turned somewhere in between - creating sculptures with cadavers. Rather than worry about what chemicals could make skin and flesh look good longer, Fragonard skinned his specimens to reveal their bones, ligaments and tendons, injected wax or metal alloys with low melting point into their blood vessels and dried their tissues out. Slap on several layers of varnish, and the posed specimens are ready to go on display - like the figure of a man atop a galloping horse, their skeletons and preserved flesh bared for all to see.

Nine years were spent on thousands of anatomical specimens - some of which would be used to educate medical practitioners, others for aesthetic purposes. Among Fragonard's infamous gallery of figures were the 'Horseman of the Apocalypse' (a man atop a galloping horse) and 'The Man with a Mandible' (which was probably inspired by the story of Samson smiting the Philistines with an ass' jaw). Breaking the death taboo, Fragonard elected to portray Death as art.

(Fragonard's bizarre cadaveric specimens would later inspire another European doctor to aesthetically pose his own preserved subjects - Professor Gunther von Hagens).

Fragonard - who, surprise surprise, is a cousin of Jean-Honoré Fragonard, the artist whose sun-dappled landscapes and cherubs are on display at the Louvre - set up his museum, Musée Fragonard, himself at the school where he taught in 1766, much to the consternation of the other academics. The school's founder, Claude Bourgelat, with whom Fragonard had had a series of clashes, saw reason to fire him five years later, but apparently did not see reason to dispose of the museum alongside Fragonard.

Interestingly, despite the revulsion of the general public, members of the aristocracy viewed Fragonard's strange sculptures as novelty items, and acquired them for their own homes - several hundred, all told, when Fragonard died in 1799.

The formaldehyde-fragrant museum remains where it stands: in three rooms of the National Veterinary School in Maisons-Alfort on the eastern outskirts of the French capital; sadly, only 21 of his specimens have survived to present day.

Gannal and carotid artery embalming

Meanwhile, in France Jean Gannal (1791-1882) became the first man to offer embalming to the general public. Gannal started off as an apothecary's assistant; his first foray into the field of medicine was during his service in the Medical Department of the French Army during Napoleon's campaigns from 1808 to 1812. (He would later be called back to serve until Napoleon's fall at Waterloo).

After leaving the Polytechnique laboratories in 1818, Gannal found work in several factories, during which time he was involved in the manufacture of textile-related chemicals and experimented with gelatin made from the bones of animals - the last of which turned him to the field of embalming.

Gannal's interest in chemical preservation of tissue began as an endeavour to safely keep and dissect animal specimens; however, come 1831 Gannal had moved on to humans and was experimenting with cadavers for dissection at medical institutions, under different conditions. Among the chemicals he experimented with were various acids (hydrochloric, nitric and arsenous), salts of copper, mercury and alum; tannin; creosote; alcohol; table salt and nitrate of potash.

His final recipe of a 2-gallon solution of equal parts acetate of alumina at 10 degrees Celsius and chloride of alumina at 20 degrees Celsius, injected via the carotid artery first upward and then downward, without blood drainage, earned Gannal a Monthyon science prize19 in 1836. This was followed shortly after by a patent for the solution and method, and the opening of Gannal's embalming practice in Paris in 1837. Gannal's most important text, Histoire des Embaumements, was published a year later.

Just when success was beating a path to his door, Gannal found himself plunged into the heart of controversy. The first one, which arose in 1839, had to do with the medical community suspecting that Gannal had illicitly used arsenic in his embalming solutions - an act which would certainly endanger the students who dissected Gannals cadavers. Gannal's confession of including small amounts of arsenic in his solutions led to the first time ever prohibition of a specific substance from embalming fluid - which would lead to the subsequent banning of many similar substances in France and other countries including the United States come the turn of the century.

The second had to do with Gannal's patent and his medical reputation. It began with his embalmer colleagues challenging Gannal's supposed originality of arterial injections via the carotid artery. This led to the selfsame colleagues arguing that only medical doctors with pertinent degrees should be allowed to engage in the pratice of embalming. Although Gannal won the second battle, the first caused him to lose his monopoly over carotid artery embalming - and what's more, it happened at a sensationalised court case in 1844.

Gannal did not exactly slink into the shadows, but save for a new patent in 1847 for an improved embalming solution, he contributed little else to the field, and when his solution was superseded by JP Sucquet's zinc chloride formula, he sold the rights to his solution to American undertakers in 1845, and that was that.

Formaldehyde as a preservative

In 1859, the science of embalming took a step forward when the preservative chemical formaldehyde was jointly discovered in the laboratories of Alexander Butlerov (1828-1866) and August Wilhelm von Hofmann (1818-1892). It was discovered that the new chemical was a more effective - and more economical - preservative than previous solutions of oils of turpentine, lavender, rosemary or vermillion which had previously been recommended by William Hunter. The chemical, prepared by passing a mixture of methanol vapours and air over a heated platinum spiral, soon became the embalming chemical of choice in medical schools after 1870.

Thomas Holmes and the Civil War

At the beginning of the American Civil War, soldiers who died in battle were mostly buried where they fell; little or no attempt was made to recover dead bodies from the battlegrounds, unless requests were made. When family members of the soldiers who died began writing in for disinterment of their buried loved ones, it caused problems at the quartermaster office - namely that the bodies were often corrupted and the coffins sent for them were very often not leak-proof. The delivery brigades were less than cheery about transporting aromatic, leaky caskets, and made little effort to conceal their unhappiness; the army was consequently forced to embalm all subsequent corpses - about 35,000, all told.

Enter Dr. Thomas Holmes (1817-1900), the Father of Modern Embalming20. The son of a well-to-do merchant, Holmes kick-started the modern embalming trend while serving a commission as a captain in the Army Medical Corps in Washington DC. Earlier on he had practiced pharmacy, experimenting with a variety of drugs and compounds in an attempt to produce an effective embalming fluid to sell to surgeons, anatomists and undertakers - he had criticised the use of poisonous compounds in the embalming fluids of the time for having been the cause of death or injuries of medical students, and while serving as a New York City coroner in the late 1850s had undertook to develop his own. Now, with families requesting that their dead be returned to them, Holmes found a place where he could prove his worth in the field.

His claim to fame came with the embalming of one Colonel Elmer E Ellsworth21, who had served as a clerk in President Lincoln's Springfield law office and later as a security guard to the president, and had died snatching a Confederate flag from atop a hotel. Because of his services - Ellsworth had also organised Zouave regiments in Chicago and New York - President Lincoln had invited the Zouaves to take Ellsworth's body to the White House for the funeral service. A Mr WA Kelly, who viewed the body in the East Room in the presence of the first lady, described Ellsworth's face as 'natural as though he were sleeping a brief and pleasant one'. Washington obviously concurred, the papers published glowing reviews of Holmes' handiwork, and Holmes would go on to produce another 4,000-odd works of embalming art, charging $7 per enlisted man and $13 per officer.

All of a sudden, everybody wanted to have their dead embalmed. Realising the commercial potential of corpse preservation, Holmes resigned his commission and began offering embalming services to the public for $100 per body.

After the passing of war, the embalming trend died down as the undertakers of the day elected to use ice to preserve corpses from decomposition for long enough to hold a funeral. At the start of the war, embalming had been carried out by trained medical professionals; now, as medical practitioners began withdrawing from the field, undertakers rushed in to fill the void, and carried embalming to professional status.

Holmes' days after the war largely consisted of opening a drugstore, manufacturing root beer and investing in a health spa. Save for selling his patented embalming fluid, Innominata to embalmers, most of his time was spent devoted to the study of embalming, and it was said that come the end, he concocted a solution he believed would kill all contagious microorganisms. He lived alone in Brooklyn until his death at the age of eighty two - that is, if you don't count all the embalmed bodies in the closet and decapitated heads on the living room tables.

Embalming today

Modern-day embalming is designed to hinder tissue decomposition for long enough to transport a body to its homeland and for family members to plan a funeral. Rather than keep the body fresh indefinitely, modern embalming aims at allowing the body to decompose by chemical means - oxidation and dissolution - rather than microbial decomposition, although under favourable conditions a body may be kept intact for several decades.

Embalming is carried out by injecting the embalming fluid into the circulatory system (usually through the carotid or femoral artery) of the body via electric pump while the blood is simultaneously forced out of the body by the fluid through a tube attached to the accompanying vein and disposed. The active ingredient in the embalming fluid is formaldehyde, which 'fixes' the soluble albumins in the cells into albumoids or gels; at the same time, it kills off all the microorganisms in the body, thus retarding decomposition. All gases and liquid contents in the abdominal cavity are aspirated by use of a hollow tube called a trocar, and the cavity is subsequently treated with preservatives before the corpse is turned over to the cosmetics department.

Once in the ground, however, the body once again becomes a free-for-all for airborne bacteria and fungi, provided there is sufficient moisture to support their growth.

Modern mummies

The Egyptians were not the first to practise the art of mummification, and they certainly were not the last. The practice of mummifying remains has continued to modern times, and has recently been offered to the public by various outfits, including one Summum Modern Mummification facility, whose patented Permanent Body Preservation System has attracted more than 1,400 people to sign over their life policies to be mummified after death. Although the technique itself is hazy, there are promises of 'a synthesis of medical technology, modern chemistry, and magnificent art', traditional wrappings in fine cloth, and a custom-made Mummiform Traditional Casket of bronze or stainless steel.

Some of today's mummies were even famous figures once, including Eva Peron, the revered wife of Argentinean president Juan Peron, (who was injected with wax), Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong and the Russian revolutionist Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

Lenin's mummification is a strange tale in itself because he was never intended to be a mummy in the first place. His chief physician, Dr. Aleksei Ivanovich Abrikosov had embalmed the body with the purpose of warding off decay until the funeral, scheduled six days after his death, but the Powers That Be decided that Lenin's corpse would be publicly displayed in Moscow for 40 days before being interred, and handed Abrikosov the task of preserving Lenin for the extended period.

Unfortunately, for Lenin's widow, her husband was never meant to rest in peace. Following the construction of Lenin's mausoleum and an elaborate cooling system to keep him fresh, a medical committee consisting of Commissar Semashko, Professor VN Rozanov, Professor BS Veisbrod, Dr VP Vorobev and Dr BI Zbarsky was hastily established just a month after Lenin's death to perform a long-term preservation of the corpse, which was beginning to decompose. In an unprecedented feat of embalming wizardry - nobody had before attempted a long-term aesthetic preservation - Vorobev and Zbarsky preserved the body with a chemical solution composed of formalin, glycerine, alcohol and various other substances of classified identity, the result of which experts claimed, 'Vorobev and Zbarsky had achieved what the church would call a miracle by employing methods known to modern science'.

It is clear that Lenin will not have his peace for many years to come. He still receives a new suit and a trip to the embalming spa every 18 months, and is apparently a major tourist attraction in Moscow.


Cryonics: 'You and Your Family's Last Best Chance For Health'. Thus reads the tagline for the Cryonics Institute in Michigan USA, founded by Robert CW Ettinger who had supposedly started the cryonics movement with his book The Prospect of Immortality in 1962. Here is where science fiction sneaks into everyday life: Organisations like the Immortalist Society (1967) and the Cryonics Institute (1976) springing up from the ground to offer the freshly dead one last shot at immortality in the form of cryogenic freezing in liquid nitrogen for $28,000, - after all, cryonics is based on the idea that current medical practice has erred in defining 'death'.

Lest this subject be dismissed as sci-fi imaginings, it is worth pointing out that human embryos, sperm, skin, bone, blood cells and bone marrow have been successfully cryopreserved and revived in the laboratory. The roots of cryobiology can be traced back to Sir Robert Boyle's 1683 monograph 'New Experiments and Observations Touching Cold', in which he documented the effecs of freezing on living animals. Although cryobiology research continued though the next two centuries, it wasn't until the mid-20th century that real progress was made, in the form of the serendipitous discovery of glycerol as a cryopreservative by one Chris Polge of the University of Cambridge. The scientist Peter Mazur used this chemical in his research of the mechanisms of freezing within cells in 1963. While Ettinger was pushing cryonics and immortality, Mazur was making discoveries about just what happens when you cool cells too slowly or too quickly22.

Cryogenic freezing of whole macroorganisms had so far been scoffed at by crybiologists for the reason that the freezing process would create ice crystals that would damage cells and cellular structure beyond repair; however, at the turn of the millennium, cryobiologists Greg Fahy and Brian Wowk of Twenty-First Century Medicine successfully eliminated most of the ice crystal formation with the usage of new cryoprotections that allow vitrification of the cooled flesh to form a glass-like substance. In this form, the molecules in the cells remain in a disordered state23 (as are fluids), and do not form ordered crystalline structures. Alcor Life Extension Foundation, the world's largest cryonics provider, is currently using these chemicals in combination with a new, faster, cooling method to vitrify human brains. Unfortunately, undoing the process is somewhat stickier than doing it - rather like cleaning up a mess - as even a perfectly vitrified brain, stored against freeze-fracturing, will suffer large-scale crystallisation upon rewarming.

For those of you planning on making reservations for cryonic chambers, hold your horses. The procedure isn't yet legally available to either the dead or the terminally ill24, although Robert A Freitas (author of Nanomedicine) optimistically speculates the first cryonic revival experiments will be carried out by the year 2040-2050. What's more, cryonics by vitrification is very likely to break your bank; the liquid nitrogen alternative causes brain freeze-fracturing, which isn't exactly something you'd want to wake up to, several hundred years into the future.

Soft fix

The current developments in cadaver preservation have allowed morticians and medical professionals to either temporarily or permanently/semi-permanently preserve a dead body. However, when preserved and yet supple tissue is required to train medical professionals, none of the previous methods will do. Fortunately for these practitioners, a new method called 'soft fix' (one of the developers being CTEC, a western Australian medical technology facility) has enabled the preservation of cadaveric remains while at the same time maintaining the suppleness of soft tissue and muscle, for the purpose of highly realistic dissection.


And then we return full circle to our chess player friend who sits, forever contemplating, at a solitary game. He is only one of perhaps a hundred corpses who have been preserved life-like by a method known as plastination.

The man responsible for the creation of this technique - and for the exhibits at Body Worlds - Professor Gunther von Hagens, is no stranger to controversy. His medical studies at the University of Jena in Germany had been halted in the 1960s with his arrest following his distribution of leaflets protesting against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact troops; four years after he resumed medical school von Hagens would go on to not only pioneer a new preservation technique but also open up a new branch of aesthetic anatomy that would fascinate some and mortify others.

The proverbial lightning struck von Hagens when, as an anatomy assistant at the University of Heidelberg Institute of Anatomy, he saw his first polymer-block specimen and puzzled over why the specimen had been embedded in the polymer when the polymer could better stabilise the specimen from within. The idea caught fire when, having wasted a day embedding kidneys in paraffin and cutting thin slices of them, he watched a sales woman at the butcher shop slicing ham and it struck him that his task would be more fruitful if he were to use a meat slicer instead. One thing led to another, and while vacuum-removing air bubbles from the liquid Plexiglas he'd embedded the kidney slices in, von Hagens toyed with the possibility of infusing the slices with plastic by saturating them with acetone and placing them in a vacuum.

Of course brainstorms don't always result in success, and what von Hagens wound up with was a miserable, shrunken slice of kidney that had mysteriously turned pitch black. Undaunted, he repeated his experiment a week later, this time substituting the plastic with silicone rubber, and slowing the impregnation process, this time using three successive baths instead of one. This time he ended up with a more presentable specimen - a success great enough to turn von Hagens' lifework towards the improvement of his newly-developed plastination technique.

The development of the plastination technique, which would soon come to be known world-wide, took over 20 years. The first plastinates were hardly fit for the bottom shelves of the anatomy museum - smeary surfaces, tissue slices bloated and distorted with air bubbles. Gradually, however, as the technique and chemicals improved, von Hagens was able to move from tissue sections to whole organs and parts - and eventually whole bodies. The procedure, described as 'Polymer Impregnation of Perishable, Biological Specimens' was patented, but von Hagens thought it was too wordy a name. And so the term 'Plastination' was invented.

The plastination technique

The plastination technique involves the displacement of bodily fluids by acetone through diffusion, and the subsequent replacement of acetone by reactive plastics under vacuum. Two types of specimens can be produced via this method: dissected specimens, which are posed specimens dissected with the traditional anatomist's forceps and scalpels, and sections, which are basically bodies or parts thereof which are sawn in 3.5mm slices while frozen. The initial treatment of both specimens are the same: the halting of decomposition using formaldehyde, cold acetone displacement of bodily fluids and the subsequent removal of fat molecules by warm acetone, and forced impregnation25 of plastic in vacuum. From there the two different specimens go their separate ways. The dissection specimens are arranged and posed before being hardened by a special gas and subsequently infused with silicone rubber, which is elastic and only refracts light weakly, giving specimens impregnated with silicone a natural look. The sliced sections, on the other hand, are laid between a sheet of film and/ or glass plates and are heat-cured. Unlike the posed specimens, however, these slices are infused with epoxy resin - the highly refractive properties of which allow the slices to appear transparent when the surface is smooth, and because the natural hardness of polymerised epoxy resin makes it a suitable polymer for preserving cross-sections.

Thanks to recent developments in this field, the time for treating the cadavers has been prolonged - specimens can sit in impregnation baths for several months at a time without worry that the curing will occur too early, and what's more, they can be further dissected and position before being hardened. The development of perfusion plastination, which involves the permeation of only cells of an organ and not its vascular system with plastic, has allowed the creation of light-weight, flexible solutions.

Moreover, plastinated specimens do not reek of formaldehyde. Say goodbye to the days of inhaling migraine-inducing fumes in the anatomy laboratory.


Certain treatment of human cadaveric remains - especially as art forms - have been the source of much controversy over the centuries; however the bioethics of preserved human bodies will not be discussed here, for the reason that it deserves an article of its own.


Baker, Gordon H. 1992. Paging Dr Black. Or, An Inquiry Regarding Medicine as the Model of Choice for Funeral Service, and whether the Principles Adopted are Used with Legitimacy. An Electronic Bulletin for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, Vol 1(1).

Dr Thomas Holmes. New York Times Obituary, 10 January 1900, Page 7.

Gopichand, Patnaik VV. 2003. Editorial. J. Anat. Soc. India 52(1) 3-6.

von Hagens, Gunther. Anatomy and Plastination. IN Prof Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies.

Harlan, Richard. Jean Nicolas Gannal: 1791-1852. Title page to the English translation of Histoire des Embaumements by Gannal.

Lee, James C. 1996. Embalming: The Humble Undertaker Performed a Distateful but all too Necessary Role during the Civil War. America’s Civil War, Nov. 1996.

Roach, Mary. 2003. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. WW Norton & Company, New York.

Internet Resources

1Unlike the Egyptians, however, everybody in the Chinchorro tribe was mummified after death, although the treatment varied from body to body.
2There are archaeological findings that indicate the Egyptians at Hierakonpolis had been mummifying their dead as early as 3400 BC by wrapping them in linen impregnated with resin; however, they didn't nail the viscera problem until about a thousand years later.3The God of the River Nile, Osiris, was brutally murdered by his evil brother Seth, who chopped the body into pieces and cast them into the river. Osiris' grieving widow Isis fished out the remains, however, and pieced them together again, thus simultaneously resurrecting Osiris and giving birth to the resurrection theme that would resurface in many later religions.4Hydrated sodium carbonate.5The Egyptians believed in three forms of spirits: The ka, or 'double', which would remain in the tomb and thus needed the offerings and objects placed in it, the ba, or 'soul', which was free to travel, and the akh, or 'spirit', which would make the journey to the Underworld, get judged and (if his heart was lighter than a feather) make it into the Afterlife.6All fluids and rags used in the embalming process are later buried with the body.7And whose mummies were dried by a glowing fire and internally smoked.8The number of priests who have attempted this feat is much higher; however, not everybody who desires to become a mummy actually succeeds.9One Garth Haslam (aka Oniko) who was on a pilgrimage to Yamagata to see some of these mummies reported that a sacred spring on the mountain Yudono, whose waters and mineral deposits are believed by many priests to be of medicinal value, and have been ingested by some of these auto-mummification practitioners, was found to contain lethal amounts of arsenic.10Apparently the tombs were opened some time after the priests had died; however, it is not stated anywhere how long the other priests waited before doing so.11Doesn't this carry Matrix overtones?12This includes: drying, curing with smoke, salts, acids and protective solutions which include pickling fluids, honey, sugar and alcohol.13Thus probably giving rise to the irate saying, 'Go boil your head!'14Harvey had injected dyestuffs into the blood vessels of cadavers.15Some sources say 1638-1731.16Incidentally, van Butchell studied under Hunter before turning to the dentistry trade.
17'Real or Artificial Teeth from one to an entire set, with superlative gold pivots or springs, also gums, sockets and palate formed, fitted, finished and fixed without drawing stumps, or causing pain.'18The School of Natural Anatomy believed in the preservation of bodies either in alcohol or by desiccation; the School of Artificial Anatomy preferred copying anatomical models as closely as possible in wax or plaster.
19The Monthyon prizes are named for Baron de Monthyon, a French lawyer who was devoted to all those who could better the lives of their fellow humans. In his will was left monetary provisions for annual prizes for (1) those who discovered ways of rendering mechanical art less unhealthy (10,000 francs), (2) for those who invented means of perfecting medical science or surgical art (10,000 francs), (3) for the poor French person who, in the course of the year, had performed the most virtuous action (10,000 francs), and (4) for the French person who had composed and published in France the book most beneficial to morals (10,000 francs).20Unlike Gannal, Holmes was a properly qualified physician, having studied at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University from 1847 to 1849, and graduated as a medical surgeon.21Through the intercession of the Secretary of State William Seward.22If freezing occurs too slowly, extracellular ice forms and dehydrates the cells; if it occurs too quickly, the cells retain water, which forms intracellular ice and wrecks the cells from within.23Glass is, after all, a supercooled fluid. What, you thought glass was solid?24Though at the last count, by the New York Times' reckoning, there are something like 90 participants in the cryonics program in the United States, blissfully freeze-fracturing in nitrogen.25This method causes minimal shrinkage to the specimen.

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