[PW] tasting embalming fluid a common practice?

T.F. Mills phasco at earthlink.net
Sat May 7 13:35:17 PDT 2016

On 5 May 2016 at 15:15, Kevin O'Kelly wrote:

> Now the fact that  tasting  embalming fluid was considered worth mentioning
> suggests that it was unusual. On the other hand, if three men did it, I'm
> sure many more did.
> I was wondering if anyone knows any more about the practices of exhumation
> to take a look at pickled corpses.

Kevin, Note that in your examples the corpses are not being deliberately exhumed for a look or 
even a taste, but rather they were accidentally exposed -- whereupon the smell of liquor proved 
irresistible to the investigators.  This is a pretty important distinction if we are going to jump to 
conclusions about the motives of the exhumers.  

Also important is the nature of the "liquor".  It was almost certainly real potable liquor at the 
time of burial, rather than embalming fluid as we would now know it.  Brandy, rum and other 
liquors were indeed widely used to temporarily preserve the corpse of a notable if burial was 
delayed for some reason -- like lengthy transportation to the place of burial.  While most 
sailors, even most officers, were buried at sea if they died there, notable admirals could be 
preserved in the rum ration pending a proper funeral at home.

Admiral Horatio Nelson is known to have been transported in this way after the battle of 
Trafalgar in 1805, and the phrase "tapping the admiral" is said to arise from his barrel being 
empty of liquor upon arrival.  That is hearsay, but the practice of surreptiously drinking from a 
liquor barrel holding a corpse no doubt pre-existed Nelson under other fancy euphemisms, 
such as "sucking the monkey."   

Excavators stumbling on the smell of liquor in a tomb would generally know all this, and would 
also know that liquor supposedly improves with age.  What they wouldn't know before the late 
19th century was the chemical and health concerns about decomposing bodies (which may 
not appear decomposed at all if preserved in liquor).  Centuries-old liquor would prove tempting 

All that said, most people would not be buried in liquor, and therefore would-be exhumators 
would not habitually go digging around graveyards looking for a good vintage.

See "Bier barrel" in snopes.com:


and "Sucking the monkey" in Wikipedia.

T.F. Mills 
(Colorado, USA)

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