Middle English embaumen, from Anglo-French enbaumer, enbasmer, from en- + basme balm
- 1: to treat (a dead body) so as to protect from decay
- 2: to fill with sweet odors : perfume
- 3: to protect from decay or oblivion : preserve <embalm a hero's memory>
- 4: to fix in a static condition
Embalming, in most modern cultures, is the art and science of temporarily preserving human remains to forestall decomposition and to make them suitable for public display at a funeral. The three goals of embalming are thus sanitization, presentation and preservation (or restoration) of a corpse to achieve this effect. Embalming has a very long and cross-cultural history, with many cultures giving the embalming processes a greater religious meaning.
Embalming has been practiced in many cultures. In classical antiquity, perhaps the ancient culture that had developed embalming to the greatest extent was that of ancient Egypt, which developed the process of mummification. They believed that preservation of the mummy empowered the soul after death, which would return to the preserved corpse. Other cultures that had developed embalming processes include the Incas and other cultures of Peru, whose climate also favoured a form of mummification.
However some of the best preserved bodies in the world are from Han dynasty China. It was thought that a special liquid in which the bodies were embedded (solutions containing mercury and antimony salts amongst others), may have been of a certain influence. The actual cause of the preservation—which started declining rapidly once the bodies were unearthed—was the very exceptional low temperature conditions obtained at the depths at which the tombs were located, under several layers of charcoal and clay, permitting ideal temperatures and humidity levels which were maintained throughout the seasons for centuries .