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Journal of the Anatomical Society of India

Vol. 52, No. 1 (2003-01 - 2003-12)


Thought provoking, instantly pointing to reality, lingering in my mind and so close to truth are the words of Sir William Gladstone:

"Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals."

While legal aspect, like the Anatomy act was the topic of the recent editorial, it is time now for reviewing social responsibilities of Anatomists. Realizing this fact, I think, we should train our juniors to follow suit in this noble cause of what I prefer to call 'Social Embalming'. Certainly it doesn't sound respectful enough to use traditional term 'Funeral embalming'.

Preserving the mortal remains, beyond natures' permissible length of time was attempted thousands of years ago, with application of balsams and balms. In fact this lead to coining of the word "embalming"! Well, methods galore, for this art and science of perserving.

First, embalming solutions were arsenic preparations and soon were widely replaced by formalin, with the discovery of formaldehyde by Alexander Butlerov (18281866) and Wilhelm von Hofmann (1818-1892). Dr. Fredrick Ruysch (1665-1717) is generally considered the father of embalming credited with his discovery of the first successful system of arterial injection as a means of preservation. But it was Jean Gannal (1791-1882) who became the first to offer embalming to the French general public. Dr. Thomas Holmes (1817-1900) deserved to be remembered as father of modern embalming. He began offering the services to the public, while in New York and realized the commercial potential of embalming, resigned commission and started offering embalming for $100.

Social embalming has a purpose quite different from the usual. It is not just retaining the body in a fit state beyond the routine! Method to be employed for this is governed by religious faith, age and sex too.

It is considered a desecration of the body by orthodox Jewish and Muslim religions. Jews are for simplicity and embalming and cremation are generally not allowed because they are seen as mutilation of the body. The early Christians derived their burial customs from Greeks, Romans and Jews. They followed the strong Jewish tradition of burial with no embalming. The sacred status of burial grounds was upheld. Hindus and Buddhists choosing cremation have no need for embalming under normal circumstances.

Age and sex apart from the complexion of the individual also tend to govern and modify the method to be opted. Say; use of 70% alcohol prepared from absolute alcohol, (and not rectified spirit) in place of traditional formalin for retaining complexion is an example.

Usual fear for the dead is fast replaced by sentiment and pride. The bereaved expect the deceased to be presented in a restful state of sleep for the final rites! So discoloration, dehydration and distortion should be prevented by all means while and after preserving the dead body in the processes of social embalming. Plugging of natural orifices and decent presentation of exposed parts like face, get priority. Legally speaking, written consent for embalming should be obtained from the person legally authorized to dispose of the body. Social embalming should preferably be not performed in living premises of or related to the dead.

We need to view the changing world from its own perspective. Contrary to the earlier half of the last century, wherein slow growth rate, tardy, negligible shift in way of life was more a common occurrence; the later half strode fast pushed norms aside and brought in discernible metamorphic rainbow of changes in life and life style! Communication became faster (almost instant or live or real-time) and more reliable; so also conveyance. The world started appearing small as if distant points are getting closer! The recent decades witnessed virtual shrinking of family size to nuclear type and growing freedom to youngsters. Approval is on cards (even before asking for) for leaving home and mother land for greener pastures. Many a place we encounter spacious tenements, more affluent dwellings, these days with aged grand parents and tiny grand children; while the mid segment of the family is busy earning abroad! Some time, some where, a bolt from the blues descends, most untimely. The certainty becomes apparent, the death, the inevitable, unfortunate happening does happen. No alternatives. Just accept! Retaining the physical remains may become such a dire necessity as someone is expected from far away for the ceremonial send off!

Only you can be the last physician who may not be saving the life but necessarily saving the form, for a glimpse of which some one is coming from may be beyond the seas! For service to the humanity in time of great sorrow and agony, you are there.

And some points to keep in mind! Never rush up while embalming, as this can lead to swelling in the face, which becomes impossible to fix! Short cuts and inferior material will make for a shoddy job, for sure. Be liberal with time and money spent on the procedure. Embalming is a must when crossing state borders and when a body needs to be shipped by common carrier. Forbid embalming if the cause of death is known contagious disease or when cause of death is not ascertained or just suspicious.

Extend the service and make it known widely in the public that social embalming is a responsibility we shoulder and that it's a desirable procedure in hot climatic conditions. Educating the masses on this front is also our duty. Let us stand to the needs! Long live A.S.I.


(Dr. Patnaik V.V. Gopichand)

J. Anat. Soc. India 52(1) 3-6 (2003)

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