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Text - "Anatomy and Embalming" C. O. Dhonau & A. J. Nunnamaker


The Egyptians embalmed their dead, and the processes which they employed were sufficiently perfect to secure them an indefinite preservation. This is a fact which the pyramids, the cavern, and all the sepultures of Egypt offer us irrefragible proof. But what were the causes of the origin of this custom? We have in answer only hypothesis and conjecture. In the absence of valid documents, each one explains according to the bias of his mind, or the nature of his studies, a usage, the origin of which is lost in the night of time. One of the ancients informs us that the Egyptians took so much pains for the preservation of the body, believing that the soul inhabited it so long as it subsisted. Cassien, on the other hand, assures us that they invented this method because they were unable to bury their dead during the period of inundation. Herodotus, in his third book, observes, that embalming had for its object the securing of bodies from the voracity of animals; they did not bury them, says he, for fear they would be eaten by worms, and they did not burn them, because they considered fire like a wild beast that devours everything it can seize upon. Filial piety and respect for the dead, according to Sicculus, were the sentiments which inspired the Egyptians with the idea of embalming the dead bodies. De Maillet, in his tenth letter upon Egypt, refers only to a religious motive as the origin of embalming: The priests and sages of Egypt taught their fellow citizens that, after a certain number of ages, which they made to amount to thirty or forty thousand years, and at which they fixed the epoch of the grand revolution when the earth would return to the point at which it commenced its existence, their souls would return to the same bodies which they formerly inhabited. But in order to arrive, after death, to this wished for resurrection, two things were absolutely necessary; first that the bodies should be absolutely carefully preserved from corruption, in order that the souls might re-inhabit them; secondly, that the penance submitted to during this long period of years, that the numerous sacrifices founded by the dead, or those offered to their names by their friends, or relation, should expiate the crimes they had committed during the time of their first inhabitation on earth. With these conditions exactly observed, these souls separate from their bodies, should be permitted to re-enter at the arrival of this grand revolution which they anticipated-remember all that had passed during their sojourn, and become immortal like themselves. They had further the same privilege of communicating this same happiness to the animals which they had cherished, provided that their bodies inclosed in the same tomb with themselves, were equally well preserved. It is in virtue of this belief that so many birds, cats, and other animals are found embalmed with almost the same care as the human bodies with which they have been deposited. Such was the idea of perfect happiness which they hoped to enjoy in this new life. Surely superstition alone, it could scarcely be believed, would induce men to save from destruction the mortal spoils of individuals whom they had loved whilst living. We much prefer looking for the source of this usage in the sentiment which survives a cherished object snatched from affection by the hand of death. Since death levels all distinctions-respecting neither love nor friendship-since the dearest and most sacred ties are relentlessly broken asunder, it is the natural attribute of affection, to seek to avoid in some degree, a painful separation, by preserving the remains of those they loved and by whom they were beloved. This according to Saint Vincent. Volney and Paraset write as follows as to the probable cause of the origin of the custom: In a numerous population, under a burning climate, and the soil profoundly drenched during many months of the year, the rapid putrefaction of bodies, is a leaven for plague and disease. Stricken by these numerous pests, Egypt at an early day, struggled to obviate them; hence have arisen, on the one hand a custom of burying their dead at a distance from their habitations; and on the other an art so ingenious and simple to prevent putrefaction by embalming. One individual may be induced to embalm the bodies of his relatives and friends by motives of superstition; another from egotism and personal interest; a third from motives of salubrity or common interest; another is impelled to perform the sacred duty of preserving the remains of those who were dear to him by an instinctive affection. Caylus says that the Egyptians, according to appearances owe the idea of their mummies, to the dead bodies which they found buried in the burning sands which prevail in some parts of Egypt, and which, carried away by the winds, bury travelers and preserve their bodies, by consuming the fat and flesh without altering the skin. The mourning, embalming and funerals were conducted as follows: When a man of consideration dies, all the women of his house, cover the head and even the face with mud; they leave the deceased in the house, girdle the middle of their bodies, bare the bosom, strike the breast, and overrun the city, accompanied by their relations. On the other side, the men also girdle themselves, and strike their breasts; after this ceremony they carry the body to the place where it is to be embalmed. Certain men according to the law have charge of the embalming, and make a profession of it. When a body is brought to them, they show the bearers models of the dead in wood. The most renowned represents, they say, Him whose name I am scrupulous to mention. This model was probably the figure of some divinity. To be prepared after this model would cost one talent, (about nine hundred dollars of our money). They show a second which is inferior to the first, and which is not so costly, twenty mina, (or about three hundred dollars in our money). They also show a third of lower price, the price of which was considered by Herodotus as a trifle, which we would infer to mean from fifty to seventy-five dollars of our money. The exhibition of models on the part of the embalmers, had reference to the richness of the work demanded, and to the expense of the chosen form. They demand after which of the three models they wish the deceased to be embalmed. After agreeing about the price, the relatives retire; the embalmers work alone and proceed as follows, in the most costly embalming. They first withdraw the brain through the nostrils, in part with a curved iron instrument, and in part by means of drugs, which they introduce into the head. They now make an incision in the flank with a sharp Ethiopian stone. The body is extended upon the earth, the scribe traces on the left flank the portion to be cut out. He who is charged with making the incision cuts with an Ethiopian stone, as much as the law allows; which, having done, he runs off with all his might, the assistants follow, throwing stones after him, loading him with imprecations, as if they wished to put upon him this crime. They regard, indeed, with horror, whoever does violence to a body of the same nature as their own. They withdraw the intestines through this opening, clean them, and pass them through palm wine, place them in a trunk; and among other things they do for the deceased, they take this trunk, and calling the sun to witness, one of the embalmers on the part of the dead, addresses that luminary in the following words, which Euphantus has translated: "Sun and ye too, Gods, who have given life to men, receive me, and grant that I may live with the eternal Gods: I have persisted all my life in the worship of those Gods, whom I hold from my fathers, I have ever honoured the Author of my being, I have killed no one, I have committed no breach of trust, I have done no other evil: if I have been guilty of any other fault during life, it has not been on my own account, but for these things." The embalmer in finishing these words, shows the trunk containing the intestines, and afterwards casts it into the river. As to the rest of the body when it is pure they embalm it. Afterwards they fill the body with pure bruised myrrh, with cannella and other perfumes, excepting incense, it is then sown up. When that is done they salt the body by covering it with natrum for seventy days. The natrum carries off and dries the oily, lymphatic, and greasy parts. After the seventy days the body is not permitted to remain longer in the salt. The seventy days elapsed, they wash the body and entirely envelope it in linen and cotton bandages, soaked with gum Arabic. The relatives now reclaim the body, they have made a wooden case for the human form, in which they enclose the corpse, and put it in a chamber destined for this purpose, standing erect against the wall. Such is the most magnificent method of embalming the dead. Those who wish to avoid the expense, choose this other method; they fill syringes with an unctious liquor which they obtain from the cedar, with this they inject the belly of the corpse without making any incision, and without withdrawing the intestines; when this liquor has been introduced into the cavity, they cork it; the body is then salted for the prescribed time. The last day they draw off from the body the injected liquor, it has such strength that it dissolves the ventricles and intestines, which come away with the liquid. The natrum destroys the flesh, and there remains of the body only the skin and the bones. This operation finished, they return the body without doing anything further to it. The third kind of embalming is only for the poorer classes of society, they inject the body with a fluid called surmata, they put the body in natrum for seventy days, and they afterwards return it to those who brought it. As to the ladies of quality, when they are dead, they are not immediately sent to the embalmers, any more than such as are beautiful or highly distinguished; they are reserved for three or four days after death. They take this precaution lest the embalmers might pollute the bodies confided to their care. The relatives now fix the day for the obsequies in order that the judges, the relations, and the friends of the dead may be present, and they characterize it by saying that he is going to pass the lake; afterwards the judges, to the number of more than forty arriving, place themselves in the form of a semicircle beyond the lake. A bateau approaches, carrying those who have charge of the ceremony, and in which is a sailor whom the Egyptians name in their language, Charon. Before placing in the bateau the coffin containing the body of the deceased, it is lawful for each one present to accuse him. If they prove that he has led a sinful life, the judges condemn him, and he is excluded from the place of his sepulture, if it appear that he has been unjustly accused, they punish the accuser with severity. If no accuser presents himself or if the one who does so is known to be a calumniator, the relatives, putting aside the signs of their grief, deliver an eulogism, on the deceased without mentioning his birth, because they consider all Egyptians equally noble. They enlarge on the manner in which he has been schooled and instructed from his childhood; upon his piety, justice, temperance, and his other virtues since he attained manhood, and they pray the Gods of hell to admit him into the dwelling of the pious. The people applauded and glorified the dead who were to pass all eternity in the abodes of the happy. If any one has a monument destined for his sepulture, his body is there deposited; if he has none, they construct a room in his house, and place the bier upright against the most solid part of the wall. They place in their houses those to whom sepulture has not been awarded, either on account of crimes, of which they are accused, or on account of the debts which they may have contracted; and it happens sometimes in the end that they obtained honorable sepulture, their children or descendants becoming rich, pay their debts or absolve them. The Egyptian embalmers knew how to distinguish from the other viscera, the liver, the spleen, and the kidneys, which they did not disturb; they had discovered the means of withdrawing the brain from the interior of the body without destroying the bones of the cranium; they knew the action of alkalies upon animal matter, since the time was strictly limited that the body could remain in contact with these substances; they were not ignorant of the property of balsams, and resins to protect the bodies from the larvae of insects and mites; they were likewise aware of the necessity of enveloping the dried and embalmed bodies, in order to protect them from the humidity, which would interfere with their preservation. The preceding is a description of ancient Egyptian embalming as given by Herodotus, and has been the subject of numerous commentations, discussions and researches. It is almost a positive fact that Herodotus has omitted desiccation, and that it naturally took place during the time consecrated to preparation. From the mummies examined it is believed now that the body was first salted for seventy days, then dried, and that it was not until after this desiccation that the resinous and balsamic substances were applied. A simple inspection of the mummies is sufficient to confirm this opinion and besides what use would have been these resinous matters, with which the alkali of the natrum would soon form a soapy mass, which the lotions would have carried off, at least in great part? It is much more reasonable to suppose that these balsamic and resinous substances were not applied to the bodies until after they were withdrawn from the natrum. All the ancients agree, in saying that the Egyptians made use of the various aromatics to embalm the dead; that they employed for the rich myrrh, aloes, canella, and cassia lignea; and for the poor, the cedria, bitumen, and natrum. The natrum was a mixture of carbonate, sulphate, and muriate of soda. It was a fixed alkali, which acted after the manner of quicklime; despoiling the bodies of their lymphatic, and greasy fluids, leaving only the fibrous and solid parts. The odoriferous resins and bitumen not only preserved from destruction, but also kept at a distance the worms and beetles which devour dead bodies. The embalmers, after having washed the bodies with palm wine, and having filled them with odoriferous resins or bitumen, they place them in stoves, where by means of convenient heat these resinous substances united intimately with the bodies, and these arrive in a very little time to that state of perfect preservation which we find them at the present day. This operation of which no historian has spoken, was, without doubt, the principle and most important part of their embalming.

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