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Keeping the Dead Among the Living

If there really is, as the saying goes, more than one way to skin a cat, then it only stands to reason that there’d be more than one way to preserve its remains. The science of body preservation has had a slow evolution from the mummies of 6000 BC to the plastic-infused oddities of the modern plastinated “Body Worlds.” These methods of preservation were discovered by some of the brightest, if most morbid, minds of their time. Here are five of the most important figures who turned their minds to the task of literally keeping the dead with us forever.

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The Unnamed Chinchorro Residents’ Mummies

Admittedly this first one isn’t really a person. No one is quite sure who the first person was that came up with the idea of making an attempt to preserve the dead. What is known is that the earliest example discovered of this concept are mummies from the Chinchorro culture in ancient South America, from somewhere around 6000-5000 BC. (That’s around three thousand years before the ancient Egyptians did the same thing and took all the credit.) Unlike the more famous Egyptian mummies, the people of the Chinchorro culture—based in what is now known as northern Chile and southern Peru—mummified all their dead, whether it was the most respected member of a community or a young child. Examples of mummified miscarried fetuses have been discovered.

The process was fairly basic: the body’s organs were removed, either by taking the body apart (the so-called “Black Mummy” technique) or through multiple incisions made on the corpse (the later “Red Mummy” technique), and the body was left to dry in the sun, before being covered in a paste made of mud, sand, and egg or fish glue. When it was dry, it was painted and placed in a grave. As antiquated as the process might seem, even today, some people still believe that mummification is the most suitable manner in which to celebrate a death. In 2008, Summum Bonum Amen Ra, the founder of an organization that promoted “Modern Mummification,” celebrated his life’s work by being mummified and encased within a bronze casket after his death.

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Frederik Ruysch’s Liquor

For the most part, corpse preservation fell out of favor following the Egyptian era. It wasn’t until the 17th Century that a Dutch anatomist called Frederik Ruysch became known for his secret “liquor balsamicum” which preserved the body, promoting the idea of “arterial embalming”—that is, draining the body of blood and replacing it with liquid that will preserve the body for a longer period. Ruysch had the background for this kind of work; he had been a forensic advisor to the Amsterdam courts, as well as a professor of botany in the Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam, prior to the creation of his mysterious liquor.

Embalming has become more desirous at this time because of the scientific revolution of the Renaissance period, which saw anatomists begin to seek out ways to preserve specimens. The formula for Ruysch’s liquor was a closely guarded secret—all the better to profit from its creation, after all—but Ruysch did share it with one very famous friend: Peter the Great, who bought the formula as part of a larger collection (it consisted of the pigment Prussian Blue, mercury oxide, and clotted pig blood).

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Thomas Holmes’ Quest to Make the Dead Safe for the Living

Called “the father of American embalming,” Dr. Holmes became interested in the preservation of cadavers while studying at Columbia University in the late 19th Century. At this point, the most commonly used preservatives were compounds heavy in arsenic, mercury or zinc, and the young Holmes was convinced that such compounds could cause sickness for doctors and students performing dissections. Going on to examine both earlier arterial embalming processes as well as the remains of a number of Egyptian mummies, he developed a solution that he believed was healthier for those living around the dead, lacking the compounds that had caused him such distress.

(Ironically, Holmes’ solution included large quantities of arsenic, which would later be charged as extremely dangerous itself, and be blamed for contaminating ground water supplies as the bodies decomposed.)

When America found itself torn apart by Civil War, Holmes had the chance to put theories into practice, embalming Union soldiers to preserve their remains long enough for them to be shipped back to their families. After the war, Holmes boasted that he had personally embalmed more than 4000 corpses during the period. Whether that was fact or exaggeration to sell his embalming solution—$3.00 per gallon, complete with injection apparatus—remains unclear.

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August Wilhelm von Hoffmann’s Formaldehyde 

While Holmes was potentially embalming thousands upon thousands of union soldiers, German chemist August Wilhelm von Hoffmann was busy making a discovery that would change embalming forever: the existence of formaldehyde.

To be entirely fair, Hoffmann wasn’t exactly the first person to discover formaldehyde; Russian chemist Aleksandr Butlerov had accidentally created some years earlier, but failed to take much notice. Hoffmann, however, not only identified its existence, but essentially created the method in which the gas is manufactured today. Soon after its discovery in 1868, formaldehyde would quickly become the second largest ingredient in modern embalming fluids, behind ethanol. (Formaldehyde generally ranges from 5-29% of the fluid, with ethanol going from 9-56%; the remainder is made up of methanol and other solvents.)

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Gunther von Hagens’ Plastic People

While mainstream embalming techniques haven’t made a massive leap in the last century, parallel methods of preserving the body post mortem have arisen, such as German chemist Gunther von Hagen’s “Plastination.” This essentially replaces embalming fluids with plastics, creating a perfectly preserved specimen entirely free of decomposition, and able to be essentially “posed” in whatever position necessary before the specific polymers harden.

An extensive—and expensive—process, Hagens has said that it takes almost a full year to successfully “plastinate” a full human body, not that plastination is used to keep bodies whole. Once the internal organs are coated in plastic, they don’t have to be protected by a moisture-tight skin or external wrapping. They can be displayed to the world. The plastinated bodies that have become the basis of the popular, if gruesome, “Body Worlds” exhibitions, are peeled like onions, displaying the skin, muscles, bones, tendons, and organs of each of the bodies. If it takes that much effort to plastinate, why show off only the outside?

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Cryonics: Turning Preservation into Stasis

Of course, science hasn’t stopped with embalming fluids or plastics for preservation in death. The latest step, proposed in the early 1960s, was to preserve a body so well that death was (or will be) reversible. Cryonics was proposed when scientists started taking note of certain animals that preserve themselves perfectly in ice and come back to life. Cryonics institutes cool dead bodies with liquid nitrogen in the hopes that they can be revived later on.

How realistic this hope is has been debated over the years. Cryonics believers point out that certain species of fish, insects, and eels can be frozen and brought back to life. Human embryos, also, have been frozen, unfrozen, and gone on to develop into people. In 2005, a rabbit kidney was frozen solid, then unfrozen and put into a living rabbit, where it functioned perfectly well. Still, the fact that the cryonically frozen people are dead, that frozen cells tend to burst their walls and be completely destroyed, and that, quite simply, no one has ever come back from a cryonic freezing, are points against their argument. Some patients, in fact, elect not to have their entire body frozen, but only undergo neurocryopreservation—only their heads are frozen. Where they believe they will get bodies from in the future is a matter for debate.

Cryogenics are becoming increasingly popular as a theoretical way to postpone any final goodbyes as long as possible, even if we’re still some time away from any Futurama-like scenarios of reviving those believed dead of natural causes. But perhaps only a matter of time—and more technology.

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Graeme McMillan

Graeme-McMillanGraeme McMillan lives, writes, and is currently learning to bake in Portland, Oregon. His writing has appeared throughout the internet on sites like Time Magazine’s Techland blog, io9.com, and Comic Book Resources, and if pressed, he’ll admit that he tries to use his powers for good.