The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Digital Library

Embalming Kit

About This Item


Embalming Kit


Medical History, 20th Cent.
Apparatus and Instruments


This embalming kit dates from the turn of the 20th century. The carrying case suggests that its owner may have worked at multiple locations. Specialized tools allowed the embalmer to remove the bodily fluids, organs, and tissues from the body and use embalming fluid and various fillers to help restore a “lifelike” appearance.

Before the Civil War, most Americans felt that the ancient practice of preserving bodies after death was a distasteful, “pagan” custom. But during the war, thousands of soldiers died far from their homes, and some families wanted their loved ones brought home for burial. This was a logistical challenge. Railroads were not willing to transport decomposing bodies, and the bodies did not arrive in a presentable state for the funeral.

To meet wartime demand, freelance embalmers set up shop near battlefields and hospitals, offering to preserve bodies long enough for the journey home and the funeral. The service was expensive, and only a very small percentage of the war dead were embalmed and transported. Nevertheless, this wartime use helped establish embalming as a more common funeral custom after the war.

By this time, embalming techniques had evolved from ancient mysteries involving “balms,” resins, spices, and the like to more scientific chemical methods developed for the preservation of anatomical specimens. Civil War embalmers were secretive about their proprietary techniques, but embalming practices soon became more open. The first American textbook on embalming methods was published in 1878 and training schools for embalmers began to open in the 1880s.

Nineteenth-century embalming recipes generally included arsenic and other poisons; by 1910 the United States banned arsenic embalming as a hazard to workers. Formaldehyde formulas became the new favorite for both cosmetic embalming and scientific preservation. Unfortunately, formaldehyde can also be hazardous, as occupational exposure has been linked to risk of cancer and other diseases. Embalming formulas without formaldehyde are available, but many embalmers still prefer to use formaldehyde despite the risks, saying that it gives the best results.


Digitized by the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia


G. Jonathan Moffitt, Donor





Original Format

Leather, metal, cloth, glass


“Embalming Kit,” The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Digital Library, accessed May 16, 2021,