The process of treating a dead body (human or animal) with substances such as aromatic oils so as 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 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.
The Egyptians seem to have regarded the preservation of a person’s mummy as essential to an eventual reunion of his body with his soul, which they believed to be immortal, this reunion being mentioned in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. They also appear to have thought that survival of an individual’s soul was dependent upon the preservation of his body. Many mummies of the cat, the ibis and other creatures have been found in Egypt, these having been viewed as sacred by some Egyptians. In fact, during one period at least, they believed in the transmigration of the soul.
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.” (Gen. 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.” (Gen. 50:26) Being faithful Hebrews, Jacob and Joseph knew that humans do not possess an immortal soul. (Gen. 2:7; 3:17-19; see SOUL.) Hence, they did not share Egyptian false religious views associated with embalming and the soul. 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.—Gen. 49:29-32; 50:13, 24, 25; Ex. 13:18, 19; Josh. 24:32.
NOT A HEBREW OR CHRISTIAN PRACTICE
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 a lower animal, dies and that the body returns to dust. (Eccl. 3:18-20; Ezek. 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.
ANCIENT EMBALMING METHODS
Egyptian embalming methods varied according to the importance of the individual or his wealth, and the procedure followed may have differed somewhat during various time periods. Herodotus (Greek historian of the fifth century B.C.E.) describes three methods of embalming practiced by the Egyptians of his day. The first and most expensive consisted of such steps as using an iron hook to remove part of the dead person’s brain through his nostrils and then destroying the rest of it by an infusion of drugs. Succeeding steps included making an incision in his side, removing his intestines and filling the abdominal cavity with pounded myrrh, cassia and other perfumes. The opening was then sewed up and the body steeped in natron (sodium carbonate) for seventy days, after which it was swathed in linen bandages, smeared with gum and given to the relatives. They, in turn, put it in a wooden case shaped like a person (a mummy case), which was placed upright against the wall of a sepulcher. The second and less expensive method was to make no incision but to inject cedar oil into the body at the rectum, prevent the oil’s escape, steep the body in natron and at the end of the prescribed period withdraw the oil, which carried away with it the intestines and stomach in a fluid state. The flesh was dissolved by the natron, so that only skin and bones remained, and the body was returned to thefamily in that condition. The third and cheapest method described by Herodotus, that used for the poor, was to rinse out the abdomen by means of an infusion of “syrmaea” (probably cassia and senna) and then steep the corpse in natron for seventy days.—The History of Herodotus, Book II, pars. 86-89.
Different embalming processes were used in other lands of antiquity. The Assyrians employed honey and the Persians used wax. It is reported that the body of Alexander the Great was preserved in both honey and wax.
In Egypt bandages used to wrap the body have been found to be saturated with asphalt, gum, natron or resin. Sometimes amulets and other ornaments are found in these wrappings or upon the mummies, the Egyptians evidently believing that the amulets would be useful to the wandering soul. Certain mummy cases were made of sycamore and sometimes of cedarwood. In some instances the mummy was placed in one case, which was set within another. Stone cases have been used for mummies of royalty and rich persons, and within these there have been one or two wooden cases, the innermost containing the mummy itself.
Among the numerous mummies discovered was that of Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II, found in 1881, which proved to be in exceptionally good condition despite the fact that well over 3,000 years had passed since his death and embalming. When the sarcophagus of Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen (who is said to have lived during the 14th century B.C.E.) was opened in the 1920’s, three coffins, one within the other, were found inside, the innermost being of human form and made of gold, with the young pharaoh’s likeness painted on it. However, the mummy itself was in poor condition, having been considerably eaten away because of the excessive use of resins and oils during the embalming process.
According to Herodotus, Egyptian embalming methods included soaking 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.” (Gen. 50:3) Scholars have made various efforts to reconcile Genesis 50:3 with the words of Herodotus. For one thing, the forty 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 seventy days. The later Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (of the first century B.C.E.) said (I, 91) that the Egyptian embalming process lasted above thirty or forty days, and he gave the time of mourning for a deceased king as seventy-two days, perhaps including the day of burial. 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 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. (2 Chron. 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.” (John 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 he has been dead 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—John 11:39, 44; see BURIAL, BURIAL PLACES.