Origins of Embalming

Embalming involves the artificial preservation of a dead human body through deliberate human action(s). Modern embalming methods achieve this (temporary) preservation through the use of chemicals, such as formaldehyde and glutaraldehyde, which are injected into the cadaver's circulatory system and bodily cavities as blood and other bodily fluids are removed.

Considered "one of humankind's longest practiced arts," the Egyptians originated embalming around 3200 B.C. because they believed religious resurrection could only occur for bodies preserved intact. Today, and principally in the United States and Canada, bodies of the deceased receive embalming for various reasons, including:

  • When a family desires a funeral service with the body present in an open casket
  • To provide time for family members and loved ones to travel to the deceased's funeral and/or interment
  • When the body must travel a great distance for final disposition, such as when a death occurs overseas
  • To temporarily preserve the corpse for medical research or anatomical study
An embalming table and embalming machine
DreamPictures / Photographer's Choice / Getty Images

Word Origin

The term embalming derives from the 14th-century word "embaumen," meaning "to apply balm or ointment." That word derives from an earlier Old French term, "embausmer," which means to "preserve a corpse with spices." Not surprisingly, the term "balm" (in its various historical linguistic forms) refers to an "aromatic substance made from resins and oils," such as balsam, spices, cedar, perfumes, etc. -- substances often used by the ancient Egyptians and other cultures during embalming.


Embalming can also be referred to as body preservation, temporary preservation, or thanatopraxy (French term).

2 Sources
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  1. Brenner E. Human body preservation - old and new techniquesJ Anat. 2014;224(3):316–344. doi:10.1111/joa.12160

  2. Etymonline. Embalm.

Additional Reading
  • Mayer RG. Embalming: History, Theory & Practice. New York: McGraw-Hill; 2011.

By Chris Raymond
Chris Raymond is an expert on funerals, grief, and end-of-life issues, as well as the former editor of the world’s most widely read magazine for funeral directors.