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Artificial Preservation of Human Remains

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Tutankhamun death mask, Cairo museum.

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. Still, 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 those 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 them.

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 - 235AD) 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 on 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 the 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 term after term 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 later. 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 never to smoke again). 36% of those who had previously not participated in organ donation programmes declared they would do so.

Art and aesthetics

Defenders of Professor Gunther von Hagens's Body Worlds exhibition 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, to prove a warrior's manhood or to exact 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 or even cryogenically frozen. Part of this springs from a natural revulsion towards 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.


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.

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