The process of treating a dead body (human or animal) with substances such as aromatic oils in order to preserve it from decay. If this art was not originated by the Egyptians, it was at least practiced by them in very early times. The dead body of a human or an animal that has been preserved through ancient Egyptian or other embalming methods is called a mummy. The embalming of humans was practiced not only by the Egyptians but also by such ancient peoples as the Assyrians, Persians, and Scythians.
Embalming of Jacob and Joseph. There are only two cases specifically called embalming in the Bible and both of these took place in Egypt. It was there that Jacob died, and after relating Joseph’s expression of sorrow over his father’s demise, the inspired Record states: “After that Joseph commanded his servants, the physicians, to embalm his father. So the physicians embalmed Israel, and they took fully forty days for him, for this many days they customarily take for the embalming, and the Egyptians continued to shed tears for him seventy days.” (Ge 50:2, 3) Joseph died at the age of 110 years, “and they had him embalmed, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.” (Ge 50:26) In Jacob’s case the principal purpose apparently was preservation until his burial in the Promised Land. Joseph’s prominence may have been the reason in his case.—Ge 49:29-32; 50:13, 24, 25; Ex 13:18, 19; Jos 24:32.
According to Herodotus, Egyptian embalming methods included placing the corpse in natron for seventy days. Yet, when Jacob was embalmed by Egyptian physicians at a much earlier time, the Bible says “they took fully forty days for him, for this many days they customarily take for the embalming, and the Egyptians continued to shed tears for him seventy days.” (Ge 50:3) Scholars have made various efforts to reconcile Genesis 50:3 with the words of Herodotus. For one thing, the 40 days may not have included the time of the body’s immersion in natron. However, it is quite possible that Herodotus simply erred in saying the dead body was placed in natron for 70 days. The later Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (of the first century B.C.E.) said that the Egyptian embalming process lasted over 30 days. (Diodorus of Sicily, I, 91, 5, 6) Of course, there may have been Egyptian embalming procedures that neither of these historians discussed, and it is possible that different time periods were involved in the embalming processes at various points in history.
Burial of Hebrews and Christians. The poor condition of human remains found in Palestinian tombs indicates that it was not the general Hebrew custom to embalm the dead (at least for long preservation in the manner of the Egyptians) and that early followers of Christ there did not embalm their deceased ones in an effort to preserve their bodies indefinitely. Faithful Hebrews and true Christians realized that the soul, whether that of a human or of an animal, dies and that the body returns to dust. (Ec 3:18-20; Eze 18:4) The fact that the Scriptures make such limited reference to embalming seems to be added proof that it was not a general practice among Hebrews and early Christians.
The Scriptures, in telling about the burial of King Asa, state: “They laid him in the bed that had been filled with balsam oil and different sorts of ointment mixed in an ointment of special make. Further, they made an extraordinarily great funeral burning for him.” This was not cremation of the king, but a burning of spices. (2Ch 16:13, 14) And, if this use of an ointment may be considered a form of embalming at all, it was not the type practiced by the Egyptians.
When Jesus Christ died, Nicodemus brought “a roll of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds of it,” and it is stated: “So they took the body of Jesus and bound it up with bandages with the spices, just the way the Jews have the custom of preparing for burial.” (Joh 19:39, 40) However, this was not specifically called embalming, and it was not like embalming processes practiced by the Egyptians. It was the customary manner of preparing a body for burial, doubtless being similar to the way that Lazarus was prepared for interment. His case shows that the Jewish custom did not involve an elaborate embalming process designed to preserve the body for a long time, for when Jesus said, “Take the stone away,” Martha said: “Lord, by now he must smell, for it is four days.” She would not have expected that condition to exist if Lazarus had actually been embalmed. Lazarus’ feet and hands were bound with wrappings and “his countenance was bound about with a cloth,” but the intention evidently had not been that of preserving his body from putrefaction.—Joh 11:39, 44; see BURIAL, BURIAL PLACES.