Embalming is a tradition that goes back thousands of years — in ancient Egypt, priests embalmed bodies as a way of preserving the soul on its way to the afterlife. Ancient Ethiopians, Babylonians, Persians, and Syrians all had similar methods to preserve bodies after death, mainly by depriving the bacteria on the body of air, which prevents decomposition.

Today, embalming is used to preserve the body for a few weeks during the wake and funeral, and also to disinfect it from any remaining toxins or bacteria. Embalming is considered both a science and an art — a way for family members and people to view the body after death for closure in the most life-like fashion. Here’s how the modern embalmer will take care of the body before a viewing.

Preparing The Body And Setting Features

First, the embalmer will lay the body face up on a table, remove the person’s clothing, and write down any cuts or bruises on the embalming report. Embalmers are expected to respect the body at all times, by caring for it properly and placing a sheet over genitals.

Then, the disinfection and cleaning process begins. The embalmer will use a disinfectant to clean out the mouth, eyes, nose, and other facial orifices; shave the face if it’s a man; and even massage the body to loosen up the rigor mortis — Latin for the “stiffness of death.” Making sure the muscles are loose is important, as it will come in handy later when injecting embalming fluid into the blood vessels.

When closing the eyes, the embalmer will usually place a small piece of cotton underneath the lid to round it out, and set the rest of the features in place. Once the embalming fluid is injected, the body is set rigidly, so it’s important to have everything in place beforehand. Finally, the embalmer moisturizes the facial features to keep them from drying out.

Embalming Arteries, Cavity, And Skin Surface

The embalming fluid is one of the most important parts of the embalming process, and it typically contains a mixture of formaldehyde, other chemicals, and water. Two gallons of fluid are flushed into arteries while blood is drained from another vein, through an incision in the skin. A drain tube is linked to the incision where blood will be drained, and a cannula will be placed on the artery that will receive the fluid.

Then the embalming machine is turned on, and fluid is sent through the body. While the embalmer is waiting for it to finish, he or she will typically begin washing the body down with antibacterial soap and massaging the limbs to help push the blood out and the embalming fluid in. As the process completes, the embalmer turns the pressure down on the machine. Finally, he or she would remove the cannula and drain tube, then sew together the incisions.

After cleaning out the arteries with the embalming fluid, the embalmer will need to do the same for the organs, cleaning the insides to prevent bacteria, gas, and excess fluids from building up in them. To do this, the embalmer aspirates the chest cavity using a trocar, a medical device that serves as a channel through which other instruments are placed. After cleaning out the organs, they flush cavity fluid through the torso, which sterilizes and preserves the organs throughout the body.

Placing Body In Casket

The last few steps involve cleaning and preparing the body for viewing. Cleaning the body again is necessary to remove any of the last chemicals from the embalming process. Makeup is then applied to the face to make it seem as lifelike as possible, and the hair will be groomed, the fingernails cut, and the body dressed. Finally, the body is arranged in the most peaceful manner possible inside the casket. Typically, the body can stay preserved for up to a week or so, but sometimes the embalming process and sealing inside the casket can maintain a body for years.

While over the course of thousands of years, embalming was completed for religious or spiritual purposes, today it’s done to portray a “memory image” of the deceased person, as a way to show what they were like while alive. It’s a way to aid loved ones in remembering them and receiving some closure.