Anatomical Embalming for Funeral Professionals

By combining art and science, the embalming technique reduces the natural rate of a body’s decomposition. For funeral homes, the purpose is to sustain the deceased’s appearance for viewing, enabling friends and families to have a positive and lasting memory when saying their goodbyes to loved ones. Anatomical embalming, however, prioritizes the preservation of a body for medical use by delaying decay rather than enhancing appearance. The primary objective of anatomical embalming is to ensure the cadaver remains in a suitable condition for anatomical dissection, which is crucial for educational and research purposes. 

Related: Modern Restorative Arts and Embalming Techniques 

The origins of anatomical embalming 

The origins of embalming are widely associated with the Egyptians and their close links to the mummification process. They believed that if the body was left intact, so would the soul or spirit. To achieve the intended result, the Egyptians pioneered a technique that removed moisture and gases from the body, resulting in a dry corpse that decomposed much slower. 

One of the first references to anatomical embalming involves the Greek physician Herophilus and his apprentice Erasistratus. Herophilus “was the first person to perform systematic dissection of the human body and is widely acknowledged as the Father of Anatomy.” (NIH, National Library of Medicine, 2010 December 31) 

Obstacles to anatomical dissection 

Despite interest and recognition of the importance of anatomical dissection, physicians needed more bodies. The reluctance to offer a loved one’s body for research stemmed from deep-rooted traditional and religious values, viewing human dissection as dishonorable. 

Preserving the body posed a second challenge, given the unpleasant and harmful experience of handling a decomposing body. Previously, in the absence of refrigeration, dissections occurred in open-air theaters during the winter, presenting a challenging environment. 

History of body donation for human dissection 

Herophilus and Erasistratus used criminal corpses until the Middle Ages and the arrival of Christianity, which prohibited human body donation, regarding human dissection as sinful. The Holy Roman emperor Frederick II (1194 – 1250) recognized the hindrance to medical advancement and issued a decree permitting human dissection once every five years. Attendance at the outdoor event was compulsory for everyone practicing medicine and surgery. 

An infrequency of dissections coupled with a scarcity of decedents led to “body snatchers,” the unlawful act of removing bodies from morgues, graves, and other burial sites. In 1828, Edinburgh, Scotland, witnessed a series of murders committed by the notorious William Burke and William Hare. The events led to the introduction of ‘burking,’ denoting murder by suffocation to limit the marks of violence and the intention of selling the victim’s body to medical institutions. 

Eventual legislation permitted individuals to donate their bodies after death. Around 20,000 people donate their bodies yearly to scientific research in the United States. 

The role of an anatomical embalmer 

Traditional funeral services are changing. Burials are declining, and cremations are increasing. Open casket viewings are less popular, while people seek greener alternatives to conventional embalming. Considering these changes, funeral embalmers may consider exploring anatomical embalming jobs.  

Human dissection has been pivotal in teaching anatomy for hundreds of years. “One of the most important prerequisites for the use of human bodies in educational settings is the appropriate preservation of cadaver.” (Shilpa Karkera, Trinity School of Medicine, June 2021) 

Preserving bodies through anatomical embalming is vital to effectively preventing decay and the transmission of diseases over an extended period. 

The process of anatomical embalming 

The anatomical embalming process begins with body donated through a Willed Body Program. A donor must express their wishes clearly in advance and in writing. Rules and regulations differ across states in the United States. The program’s guidelines set high standards for safeguarding a donor’s integrity, identity, and body security. 

On receiving the body, the medical institution will assess the cadaver’s suitability for various purposes based on the donor’s age, body condition, and medical history that may impact anatomical dissections. 

Anatomical embalming provides the advantage of minimal financial cost and planning for the deceased’s family. The institution handles the paperwork, and any required signatures are via email. Corpses receive a number to protect the donor’s identity. Anatomical embalmers will also shave the body’s head and face to prevent identification.  

Anatomical embalmers will inject chemicals of greater concentration than funeral homes before drying out the corpse. Following the dissection of the deceased, the medical facility will cremate and return the ashes to the family free of charge. Families do not have to wait for the ashes to return before holding a memorial ceremony, as studies may span several years. 

Educational benefits of anatomical embalming 

Anatomical embalming presents notable advantages in terms of broader societal benefits compared to traditional funeral services. In an interactive educational setting, medical students can observe, touch, and dissect human tissue, enabling them to enhance their knowledge of human anatomy. Other studies using cadavers include the Army for impact and blast testing.  

Advancements in science and the fight against diseases, especially neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, have led to significant improvements. Other beneficial medical fields include plastic surgeons, dentistry, and physical therapy education. 

Environmental advantages of anatomical embalming 

The environmental advantages of anatomical embalming may not be immediately apparent. After all, the process uses harsh and harmful chemicals, including formaldehyde and bleach. However, after dissection, corpses are cremated, which removes the concern of those chemicals leaching into the ground after burial. 

Memorial services tend to be smaller, focusing on personal remembrance without hearses, large caskets, and mortuary cosmetics. Following the service, the deceased’s family may frequently visit a physical grave to pay their respects. In contrast, cremation offers numerous unique ways to immortalize a loved one, such as memorial jewellery. 

In the aftermath of death, anatomical embalming serves as a link to preserving life. This may be through medical research, scattering of ashes after cremation, or even the incorporating of ashes into an ecosystem via reef building or tree planting.