Embalming—Is It for Christians?
As his life drew to a close, the faithful patriarch Jacob made this last request: “Bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, in the cave that is in the field of Machpelah that is in front of Mamre in the land of Canaan.”—Genesis 49:29-31.
JOSEPH honored his father’s request by taking advantage of a custom that prevailed in Egypt at the time. He commanded “his servants, the physicians, to embalm his father.” According to the account found in Genesis chapter 50, the physicians took the customary 40 days to prepare the corpse. The embalming of Jacob allowed for the large, slow-moving caravan of family members and Egyptian dignitaries to travel about 250 miles [400 km] to take Jacob’s remains to Hebron for burial.—Genesis 50:1-14.
Is it possible that Jacob’s embalmed body will be found one day? The chances are, at best, remote. Israel was a well-watered region, which limits the type of archaeological artifacts discovered there. (Exodus 3:8) Ancient metal and stone objects abound, but most of the more fragile items, such as cloth, leather, and embalmed bodies, have not withstood moisture and the vicissitudes of time.
Just what is embalming? Why has it been practiced? Is it for Christians?
Where Did the Custom Begin?
Embalming can best be described as the preserving of a human or animal corpse. Historians tend to agree that embalming began in Egypt but was also practiced by the ancient Assyrians, Persians, and Scythians. Perhaps early interest in and experimentation with embalming was sparked by the discovery of bodies that had been buried in desert sand and were naturally preserved. Such a burial would have kept moisture and air from reaching the corpse, thus limiting its decay. Some theorize that embalming got its start when bodies were found preserved in natron (sodium carbonate), an alkali that is abundant in and around Egypt.
The goal of the embalmer is simply to interrupt the natural bacteriologic action that starts within hours of death, causing the corpse to deteriorate. If this process can be averted, decay will stop or will at least be slowed down considerably. Three things are desired: preserving the remains in a lifelike state, preventing putrefaction, and rendering the corpse resistant to the ravages of insects.
The ancient Egyptians embalmed their dead mainly for religious reasons. Their concept of an afterlife was linked with a desire to stay in touch with the physical world. They believed that their bodies would be used throughout eternity and would be reinvigorated with life. As common as embalming was, to date no Egyptian account of how it was done has been found. The best record is that of the Greek historian Herodotus in the fifth century B.C.E. It has been reported, however, that trying to recreate the results by using the directions provided by Herodotus has not been very successful.
Is It for Christians?
Jacob was embalmed by those whose religious beliefs were not the same as his. Yet, we can hardly imagine that when Joseph handed his father’s body over to the physicians, he requested the prayers and ritual that may well have accompanied most embalming done in Egypt at that time. Both Jacob and Joseph were men of faith. (Hebrews 11:21, 22) Although apparently not commanded by Jehovah, the preserving of Jacob’s remains is not spoken of with disapproval in the Scriptures. The embalming of Jacob was not meant as a precedent for the nation of Israel or for the Christian congregation. In fact, there are no specific instructions on the subject in God’s Word. After Joseph himself was embalmed in Egypt, there is no further Scriptural mention of the practice.—Genesis 50:26.
The poor condition of human remains found in tombs in Palestine indicates that it was not a Hebrew custom to embalm the dead, at least not for long preservation. Lazarus, for instance, was not embalmed. Although he was wrapped in cloth, concern was shown when the stone closing his tomb was to be rolled away. Since Lazarus had died four days earlier, his sister was sure that there would be an odor when the tomb was opened.—John 11:38-44.
Was Jesus Christ embalmed? The Gospel accounts do not support this conclusion. At that time, it was the Jewish custom to prepare the body with spices and perfumed oils before laying it to rest. In order to treat Jesus’ body, for instance, Nicodemus provided a large quantity of spices for this purpose. (John 19:38-42) Why so many spices? Heartfelt love and respect for Jesus may have moved him to such generosity. We need not conclude that such a use of spices was intended to preserve the body.
Would a Christian object to the custom of embalming? From a realistic point of view, embalming is merely delaying the inevitable. From dust we came, and to dust we return at death. (Genesis 3:19) But how long will it be from the time of death until the funeral? If family members and friends are coming from a distance and there is a desire to view the body, no doubt the remains will have to be embalmed to some degree.
Scripturally, then, there is no need for concern if local requirements mandate that the body be embalmed or family members desire that this take place. The dead are “conscious of nothing at all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5) If they are in God’s memory, they will be raised to life in his promised new world.—Job 14:13-15; Acts 24:15; 2 Peter 3:13.
[Box/Picture on page 31]
EMBALMING—THEN AND NOW
In ancient Egypt, the type of embalming a corpse might receive depended on a family’s status. A prosperous family would likely have chosen the following procedure:
The brain would be drawn out through the nostrils by means of a metal instrument. Thereafter, the skull would receive treatment with appropriate drugs. The next step involved the removal of all the internal organs except the heart and the kidneys. To gain access to the abdomen, an incision had to be made in the body, but this was considered sinful. To get around this thorny issue, Egyptian embalmers designated a person called a cutter to make the incision. He fled as soon as this was done, for curses and pelting with stones were the punishment for this so-called crime.
After the abdominal cavity had been emptied, it was washed thoroughly. The historian Herodotus wrote: “They fill the cavity with the purest bruised myrrh, with cassia, and every other sort of spicery except frankincense, and sew up the opening.”
Next, the body was dehydrated by soaking it in natron for 70 days. Thereafter, the corpse was washed and skillfully wrapped in linen. The linen was then coated with a resin or some type of gummy substance that served as glue, and the mummy was placed in a lavishly decorated wooden box that had a human form.
Today, embalming can be accomplished in a matter of hours. It is usually done by placing an appropriate amount of embalming fluid in the veins and arteries as well as in abdominal and thoracic cavities. Over the years, a variety of solutions have been developed and used. However, because of cost and safety, formaldehyde is the embalming solution most often used.
The gold coffin of King Tutankhamen