Artificial Preservation of Human Remains: Techniques Past and Present
Created | Updated Nov 11, 2011
Some very famous corpses were preserved, not by special embalming techniques, but using the methods used to preserve food1: 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.
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 headband 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 are later be replaced with dangling strings.
The head then goes into a sacred boiling pot2 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 it with a knife, turning it right-side-out again and sewing the rear slit 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 life, 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 system3, Danish physician Dr Frederick Ruysch (1665 - 17174) 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 many 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 were drawn in meticulous detail by the engraver Cornelius Huyberts, and photographs of Ruysch's collection of decorated babies in jars were 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-grabbing feat, however, was the embalming of the wife of a dentist, Martin van Butchell5, whose advertisements of his trade in the St James Chronicle6 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 models7 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 two-gallon solution of equal parts acetate of alumina at 10° Celsius and chloride of alumina at 20° Celsius, injected via the carotid artery first upward and then downward, without blood drainage, earned Gannal a Monthyon science prize8 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 Gannal's 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 Embalming9. 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 Ellsworth10, 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 the top of 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's 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's 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.
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 albumens 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.
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' 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 quickly11.
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 state12 (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 ill13, 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.
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 which have been preserved lifelike 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 were halted in the 1960s by 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 an assistant at the butcher's 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 perspex 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 ended 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's lifework towards the improvement of his newly-developed plastination technique.
The development of the plastination technique, which would soon come to be known worldwide, 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 impregnation14 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 lightweight, 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.
- Accueil Musée Fragonard
- A Cold Greeting: An Introduction to Cryobiology
- Aleut Traditional Culture
- Ancient Egypt
- Civil War Embalming
- Cryonics Institute Website
- CTEC Website
- Dream Anatomy: Body Part as Body Art
- The Embalming Dentist
- Embalming during the Civil War
- Encyclopedia Smithsonian: Egyptian Mummies
- History of Embalming
- The History of the Shuar
- Japanese Buddhist Mummies
- The Monthyon Prizes
- Nova Online: Mummies 101
- James M. Deem's Mummy Tombs
- Pickled for the Proletariat: The life of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in the days after his death
- Preserving for Eternity
- Summum Modern Mummification
- The Zymoglyphic Museum