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Durban - Soon after Nelson Mandela died, his body was embalmed by the SANDF’s Military Health Service in preparation for it to lie in state at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.
The process of embalming, which preserves the body by preventing decay, takes about two to three hours, essentially replacing the bodily fluids with a formaldehyde solution.
To prevent the sinking effect of the eyes, a piece of cotton may be placed between the eye and eyelid and plastic eye caps are placed on the eyeball. The mouth is then closed by tying the jaw with a suture string.
Bruce Jackson, of Oakleigh Funeral Home, said once a body was cleaned, a machine was used to simulate the circulatory system, draining the blood from a vein while immediately replacing it with the formaldehyde solution via an artery.
“The solution enters the cells and prevents further tissue breakdown,” he said. “This must be done as soon as possible after death. The sooner the procedure is done, the better the chances that the procedure is successful.”
Jackson said the body would not retain its original look, as there may be a loss of colour.
“There are newer processes in the United States where they mix pigments with the solution which gives the body colour,” he said.
Neil Keight, of Thom Kight & Co, a Johannesburg funeral company which specialises in embalming, said it was easier to embalm a body if the death was from natural causes.
“If the death is unnatural then an autopsy must be done. Organs and arteries are cut, making it more difficult to circulate the fluids,” he said, adding that the machine used was similar to a dialysis machine.
“Any blockages in the body can be seen when the fluid circulates throughout the veins and this is rectified.”
Keight said a body, once embalmed, would stay preserved for years but factors such as its state before embalming and the conditions in which it was kept determine the length of preservation. After the embalming, restorations such as masking abrasions were done, using make-up which was applied to the face, neck and hands.