The American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford, 1996, Excerpts
Embalming is indeed a most extraordinary procedure, and one must wonder at the docility of Americans who each year pay hundreds of millions of dollars for its perpetuation, blissfully ignorant of what it is all about, what is done, and how it is done. Embalming and restorative art is so universally employed in the United States and Canada that for years the funeral director did it routinely, without consulting corpse or kin.
The practice of preserving dead bodies with chemicals, decorating them with paint and powder, and arranging them for a public showing has its origin in antiquity – but not in Judaeo-Christian antiquity. The Jews frowned upon embalming, as did the early Christians, who regarded it as a pagan custom. This incongruous behavior towards the human dead originated with the pagan Egyptians and reached its high point in the second millennium B.C. Thereafter, embalming suffered a decline from which it did not recover until it was made part of the standard funeral service in twentieth-century America.
The Egyptian method of embalming as described by Herodotus sounds like a rather crude exercise in human taxidermy. The entrails and brain were removed, the body scoured with palm wine and purified with spices. After being soaked for seventy days in a saline solution, the corpse was washed and wrapped in strips of fine linen, then placed in a “wooden case of human shape” which in turn was put in a sepulchral chamber. It was by no means so universally employed in ancient Egypt as it is today in the USA. The ordinary peasant was not embalmed.