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After death, the human body decomposes. Enzymes in cells break down, causing cells to digest themselves (autolysis). As the body putrefies, bacteria multiply, destroying tissues. Influenced by the environment and body condition, putrefaction proceeds until soft tissue liquefies leaving only a skeleton or is halted, for example, by cooling or embalming. First used thousands of years ago for body preservation by application of spices and scents, in recent centuries embalming basically entails the injection of chemicals into the body’s circulation system and cavities. Embalming merely delays decomposition but does not prevent it. The injected chemicals change decomposition from putrefaction to oxidation through air exposure and moisture.

Embalming license, 1895

Once the body is placed on an embalming table, it is washed and disinfected. The mouth and eyes are closed. An incision is made and a tube inserted into an artery. This tube connects to a container of embalming fluid pumped through the artery to replace the blood forced out through a separate tube connected to a vein. When the process is completed, the embalmer removes both tubes, ties vessels to prevent leakage, and closes the incision with sutures. The abdomen also has its contents removed and preservatives injected. Washed again, the body then has cosmetics applied, hair arranged, and clothes put on before being placed in a burial container.

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