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Basic Information

Embalming is a funerary practice (or, more strictly, a group of practices) dedicated to preserving the body of the deceased in the best physical condition possible.

Embalming can be done for a variety of motives - from the temporary, to ensure that the deceased arrives at a long term disposal site in decent condition - to the permanent, where the deceased is effectively prepared for long term storage. Whatever the motives, there are two basic approaches - "wet" and "dry".

Dry embalming is probably the most famous approach with the mummies of Ancient Egypt being the most widely known example. The deceased is preserved by removing as much water as possible from their flesh, rendering it inhospitable at best for any decay organisms … the Egyptians tended to remove the water rich internal organs for separate preservation in canopic jars and pack the body cavity with drying agents. Once dry the body then tended to be partially stuffed and the dried flesh coated with preservatives. This was a fairly complex and labour intensive operation - a cheaper method involved liquifying the internal organs with a corrosive oil, then draining them out and drying the remainder of the cadaver. Other cultures, including some pre-Columbian American ones - used natural drying either freeze drying at altitude or burial in dry sand dunes to dessicate the corpse. Packing a corpse in salt may also work - but in all cases there can be a struggle to dry the internal organs before they decay. Dry methods tend to leave a visibly withered, shrunken and inhuman looking end product - which may be an issue for some cultures. Stuffing the preserved corpse could counteract some of the shrinking, but not all of it. Besides its cosmetic function the stuffing might well also contain perfumes (myrrh and aloes both being popular in Egypt) and various amulets. A dry embalmed corpse could also be coated with varnish or lacquer to further preserve it (perhaps for display?). A non-historical but feasible technique could see the deceased coated in wax and sculpted until the end result looks (relatively) lifelike … this could be quite an eerie thing to find in a tomb. Even more so when someone meddles with the "wax statue" and finds what's inside. Clay or similar substances could also substitute for the wax.

Wet embalming is a less common approach - although it is more common as a temporary method than a permanent one. The deceased is simply pickled in an appropriate liquid and, very often, left therein - alcohol, brine and vinegar are all relatively familiar pickling agents, whilst Alexander the Great was apparently pickled in honey. Non-food grade preservatives such as formaldehyde and methanol also work. Obviously these techniques can be expensive and cumbersome and rely on the liquid level being kept up over time, but are also relatively easy to perform and keep the corpse in fairly good order (bloating may be an issue and, again, action may be required to insure that preservatives make it into the internal organs before decay sets in). Natural pickling may also occur in suitable environments such as the anoxic depths of an acidic peat bog.

Modern cosmetic embalming combines aspects of wet and dry - bodily fluids are drained and then replaced with preservative fluids which are then replaced in their turn with liquid wax. This leaves a relatively decay resistance corpse, more or less intact and preserved from the inside out. Skilled applications of cosmetics can further enhance the appearance of the corpse to the degree that a talented embalmer can leave the deceased appearing quite lifelike - which is popular in cultures where the dead are required to lie in state or be otherwise visibly present during funerary ceremonies.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • As noted, motives can vary as much as techniques - but two cultures who both value their corpse for some afterlife may still disagree violently on how to process it.
  • As in the famous legend of "Nelson's blood" what is assumed to be merely a cask of alcoholic drink may turn out to have a nasty surprise floating in it.
    • Conversely, someone's prized medical specimen collection might be irrevocably harmed by drunks syphoning off the spirits and replacing them with water (often the bane of Stephen Maturin's collecting efforts)
      • Which can have its own disadvantages if the preserver used methanol or something similar…
  • Embalming may have interesting effects on the utility of the corpse for resurrection - or reanimation. For the mummy it's pretty much compulsory but for other's it might seem a little odd. Although if you're going to keep zombies around the house you'll want to treat them in somewhere to avoid a trail of bits and corpse juice.
  • A great way to avoid being buried alive - if you weren't dead when the embalmers started work, you will be before they're done.
  • Some fantasy corpses have preserved insects or similar things added to the stuffing, ready to burst out and attack if meddled with - for example by PCs digging for valuable amulets.
  • The "wax doll" method above could make for a splendidly eerie tomb, perhaps with the dead posed on furniture as though alive.
  • Varnished mummies could be quite a good idea for cultures that celebrate a day of the dead and like to bring the dead out to join them - a thick coat of varnish may be just the ticket to ensure that great-grandad goes back into his tomb in one piece when the night is done and doesn't leave bits of himself behind on the sofa. Whether he comes and goes under his own steam or otherwise…
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