A Chemical Undertaking
Egyptians were the first embalmers. Many techniques, including scooping the brains out through the nasal cavities. Natron, honey and beeswax were also early embalming tools. Embalming strategies evolved over time and the practice expanded globally. Christians were concerned less with the embalming and more with the spiritual side. Despite that, by the 19th century, embalming was becoming increasingly common. Formaldehyde became the most popular embalming agent after laws were passed that outlawed the use of metal salts. A German physician, named Ferdinand Blum, was one of the first to use formaldehyde as a preservative. He realized formaldehyde's effects when he dipped his hands in the liquid and his fingers grew stiff. Formaldehyde undergoes a reaction with the body, which forms methylene glycol, which preserves the body's tissue. pH of the blood also plays an important role in embalming. As people decompose in the first 48 hours after they die, their blood becomes increasingly acidic, from 7.4 to 6.3. It is important to neutralize the blood to insure maximum stiffness. Formaldehyde works by linking body proteins to form a matrix of bonds. Formaldehyde was replaced over time. In 1943, Hilton Ira Jones used glyoxal to replace formaldehyde. This produced yellowing skin, so Glutaraldehyde was used instead in 1955. This reacted like formaldehyde, but there was less tissue dehydration. Glutaraldehyde penetrates the tissue more and is stronger than formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is still used much more because of its cost and gentleness towards skin.