Arsenic Embalming

by L-Johnson

Arsenic is naturally occurring in groundwater, and is the result of mass poisonings in Bangladesh.

Embalming human remains for burial has come a long way to its present state that minimizes health and environmental concerns. Along the way, health and safety weren’t always important considerations. From the Civil War until about 1910, the main ingredient used as embalming fluid was arsenic. The only alternative at the time being ice, it was effective as an embalming agent, as it killed the microorganisms responsible for decomposition. The long term effects of a high concentration of arsenic in burial areas wasn’t considered. The problem was that the large amounts of toxic arsenic in the ground could harm the health of archaeologists, cemetery workers, or the environment by spreading into the soil or groundwater.

The use of arsenic as embalming fluid started during the Civil War. Dr. Thomas Holmes, the “father of American embalming,” was engaged by the medical department of the Union Army to set up battlefield embalming stations to preserve the bodies of the dead so they can be returned home. Others were trained with the the arsenic embalming techniques and at the end of the war, took their craft with them. Arsenic-based embalming gradually came to encompass all areas of the country. Its use in embalming was banned in the early 1900′s for the health and environmental concerns.

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