9 Impressive Ways Humans Have Attempted to Preserve the Dead

Can you preserve a human body indefinitely? These techniques certainly hoped to do just that.
Christopher McFadden

Since time immemorial, mankind has spent blood, sweat, and tears to provide their deceased loved ones with a ritual burial worthy of their memory. From basic burial to funeral pyres, the people's of the past honored their dead in a myriad of ways.

But some cultures went the extra mile to attempt to preserve the bodies of the dead, long after their entombment. We can never be entirely sure why they went to such great efforts, but their practices had some surprising success stories. 

Here, then, are some of the most successful and unusual ways that our ancestors and modern society, attempt and have attempted to preserve dead human bodies. 


What are some of the most successful and unusual ways to preserve dead human bodies?

So, without further ado, here are some unusual ways to preserve dead human bodies. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. The Egyptians were masters at preserving the dead

unusual ways to preserve bodies mummy
Source: Will Scullin/Flickr

Most people today have heard about the process of mummification conducted by the Ancient Egyptians. But to our modern eyes, the effort they expended in preserving the dead seems a little alien.

However, they appear to have honed it to such a degree that many very well preserved bodies can be found today.

First and foremost, the body was washed in palm wine and water from a river. Next and incision was made into the torso and most of the internal organs were removed (with some placed in Canopic jars). 

The heart tended to be returned to the body, however. Next, the brain was removed through the cadaver's nose with a thin hook. 

The body cavity was then stuffed with a salt mixture called natron and left to desiccate for 40 days. Lastly, the body was washed again and wrapped in oiled linens and placed in a sarcophagus. 

2.  Modern embalming is pretty effective

Modern embalming is one of the most effective and commonly used techniques for preserving dead bodies. After bodily fluids are drained and gases are released, the body is usually bathed in formaldehyde and alcohol or water. 

If done correctly, most bodies have a "shelf life" of about 10 years. But this process was taken to an extreme with the mortal remains of Vladimir Lenin

Each year Lenin's cadaver is re-embalmed in a cocktail of preservatives and antimicrobial solutions. Each embalming session lasts for a couple of weeks. 

His body is covered in a rubber suit that keeps a thin layer of embalming fluid trapped against the skin. 

3. You can steep a body in honey

Mellification, or steeping in honey, is another interesting, and effective, means of preserving human bodies. According to a 16th-Century apothecary called Li Shizhen, the peoples of Ancient Arabia were masters of the practice. 

By his accounts, mellification started just before death. The dying person would begin a regime of eating, drinking and bathing in honey. 

When they died, their corpse was placed in a stone coffin and submerged in honey. After about a century or more, the body was later pulled out of the honey brine and broken into small confectionery pieces to be sold as a delicacy. 

It was believed, so we are told, that mellified human remains were potent cures for broken limbs and many other ailments. 

Honey, it turns out, is actually a pretty good medium for preserving bodies. It contains, among other things, hydrogen peroxide which is a powerful antimicrobial agent. 

4. Plastination is very effective -- and artistic

unusual body preservation plastination
Source: Paul Stevenson/Flickr

Developed by Gunther von Hagens, aka "Doctor Death", in the late-1970s, human bodies can be preserved using a technique called Plastination. This amazingly effective preservation technique involves regular emballing techniques as well as by fixation in formaldehyde to prevent decomposition. 

Once these preparatory steps are complete, the body is partially, or completely dissected and the cadaver is then kept in a bath of sub-zero acetone. The body freezes and all the water within the body's cells is replaced with the acetone. 

Next, the body is then placed in a bath of a liquid polymer of polyester, silicon rubber, or epoxy resin. This dispels the acetone and replaces it with the plastic inside the tissues. 

The plastic-filled cells are then cured using UV light, heat, and gas. 

5. Cryogenics works very well too

unusual ways to preserve bodies cryo
Source: Kit/Flickr

Cryogenics is another interesting method of preserving human bodies. Unlike others on the list, this method may open doors for dead bodies to actually be resuscitated in the future --  when or if technology allows.

The process begins with a series of intravenous injections to prevent brain and organ damage. After this is complete, the body is packed in ice and is cooled by replacing its blood with preservation fluid and anti-freezing agents.

When the body has cooled to the desired temperature, it is then placed in a tank of pure nitrogen and kept at -196 degrees Celsius

While it sounds impressive, this technique is not cheap. One of the most prominent companies who conduct this kind of process, called Alcor, charge around $200,000 per body plus annual membership fees of $1,000.

6. Cinnabar was once used in Europe and South America

unusual ways to preserve bodies cinnabar
Source: Michigan State University

Around 5,000 years ago in what is today Palencia, Spain, graves have been found where crushed cinnabar appears to have been used intentionally to preserve the bodies of the dead. This is one of the oldest accounts of attempted body preservation yet discovered in Europe.

While not common, it is clear that this process was intentional, rather than happenstance. For example, the nearest cinnabar mine to the burial site was miles away. 

Also, hundreds of kilograms of the stuff were used to layer and preserve the bodies. 

7. How about a Russian Doll approach?

unusual ways to preserve bodies china
Source: Huangdan2060/Wikimedia Commons

In the 2nd-Century BC, a high ranking member of the Chinese Han Dynasty, Xin Zhui, died at about the age of 50. Her body was then placed in a series of coffins, each on progressively smaller, with her body it the smallest of them -- akin to a kind of Russian Doll of coffins. 

She was also dressed in around 22 dresses with nine ribbons. Her body was also treated with an, as yet unknown preservative fluid that managed to keep her body relatively supple thousands of years later. 

When her body was exhumed around 2,100 years later, her body was found to be in surprisingly good shape. 

8. Body in a bag anyone?

unusual ways to preserve bodies plastic bag
Source: PeruNoticiasTv/YouTube

In Peru, one doctor claims to have discovered the perfect method of preserving human bodies -- sticking them in a plastic bag. The doctor, Dr. Edgar Aranda, tested his special embalming and encapsulation technique on his own brother's body.

Dr. Arana spent around ten years developing this technique along with his university students. 

According to Dr. Aranda, ‘One has to extract all the blood and replace it with other liquids. And they are a chemical mix that I will keep secret for the moment.’

The technique involves preserving the body in a mix of chemicals and then finally wrapping it in a plastic bag. From images released of his brother's body, who'd died 13-months prior, the preservation is impressive with his skin, hair, and nails in excellent condition. 

9. Keep your dead loved ones around as ornaments

And finally, this option might seem a little gruesome to most of us, but for some cultures, it is considered completely normal. The Toraja of Sulawesi, Indonesia actually keeps the dead bodies of their relatives at home -- at least for a few years.

Documented in National Geographic, this sacred cultural norm helps grieving relatives deal with the loss of a loved one. They believe that if a dead person is still at home they are not really gone.

For them, death is not an abrupt event, merely the start of prolonged sleep. Relatives take great care of their relative's cadavers by cleaning it, dusting it, changing its clothes, praying with it, and even "feeding" it.

“We are not afraid of the dead body because our love for our ancestors is much greater than our fear,” a relative of one of the deceased told National Geographic

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