In most parts of the world, embalming a body is rare, and in some cultures it is forbidden or frowned on. But in this country, embalming has largely become a routine part of the rituals of death.
In a country that often likes to think of itself as free from government interference, it's interesting to note that one reason for the popularity of embalming in the United States is the boost the practice got from the federal government. But first, some history.
In the ancient world, embalming became an important ritual in some cultures. The Egyptians perfected some astoundingly successful techniques for preserving human remains, although they got a lot of help from their dry climate, which discouraged decay. Perhaps because of their success with preservation, the Egyptians' religion placed great value on mummies as a way of supporting beliefs in physical resurrection and immortality.
But most of the world has placed little emphasis on embalming. That is especially true of religions that distinguish between the soul and the body, the spirit and the flesh, as do Judaism and Christianity.
As Western civilization developed, the Egyptian techniques were not completely lost. On occasion, it was important for the body of a distinguished person to be preserved. For instance, the body of a 12th-century English king, Henry I, was embalmed, the internal organs were removed and the cavities were stuffed with medicinal herbs so that it could be returned to England from France.
Later, the English were known to make use of less elaborate means of preservation for their deceased dignitaries. For instance, Lord Nelson, the British admiral who died at the Battle of Trafalgar, was returned to his country in a cask of brandy.
Except for such important personages or for members of the aristocracy, embalming remained the exception in Europe and, apart from anatomical studies, it was virtually unknown here. In fact, many people resisted the idea as a mutilation of the body.
That changed with the Civil War.
During that conflict, the federal government established national cemeteries and provided grave markers for fallen soldiers -- if the Army had the time and knew the soldier's identity. The government also required that, whenever possible, the Army keep a record of where graves were located.
But many families weren't content to let their sons lie in graves far away. Their wishes converged with the humanitarian impulses of the government and the entrepreneurship of this country's early embalmers. Working under contract with the government, these men, usually known as "embalming surgeons," would find the body, embalm it, and ship it home for a fee paid by the soldier's family or friends. This kind of arrangement continued up to the Spanish-American War. During that conflict, the government took on the responsibility.
Thus the government's treatment of its war dead helped to influence the larger culture. Embalming began to gain a foothold in American funeral customs, to the extent that many people now believe it is required.
That's not true, although for sanitary reasons many funeral establishments are reluctant to hold a body more than 24 hours unless the procedure is performed.
But Jewish customs still frown on embalming, and for the most part Jewish funeral homes in this country do very little embalming. Instead, they are equipped with refrigeration equipment, which performs the same purpose of preserving the body long enough for a visitation and funeral.
For the most part, however, Americans came to embrace embalming as part of the expected rituals of death.