If you were a wealthy Londoner with a toothache in the late 1770s, chances are you might have sought out the services of eccentric Mayfair dentist Martin van Butchel.

His skills were so much in demand that he once famously turned down a patient's plea to pay 1000 guineas for a house call (roughly £250,000 today) because he refused to work anywhere but his own home.

Van Butchel had originally trained under John Hunter, an East Kilbride-born surgeon who had founded an anatomy school in the capital with his brother, William, in the 1740s.

The latter had a flair for dissections but had become embroiled in controversy over his unusually high turnover of corpses, leading to accusations of grave-robbing and reports in one local newspaper that bodies were being disposed of down a well in his back garden.


By the 1770s, William Hunter was cashing in on a new vogue: embalming. Van Butchel was to become one of his most notorious customers.

"At that time, there was this new fascination with Egyptian mummies," said Cat Irving, a human remains conservator at the Surgeon's Hall Museum in Edinburgh.

"People start getting their own bodies preserved, thinking that maybe they can be like the Egyptian mummy.

"A number of wealthy people employ William Hunter to come and preserve their bodies, but my favourite story is the dentist Martin Van Butchel.

"He runs his own place in Mayfair, he operates out of his own house, he won't go and visit clients, and when his wife Maria dies in 1775 he decides to get William Hunter to embalm her so that he can put her on display in the living room to act as an advertisement for his dental practice.

"And it seems to have worked - people would come along out of morbid curiosity."

The Herald: A fascination with mummified Egyptians in the 1700s led wealthy people to want to be embalmed - something previously only used in anatomyA fascination with mummified Egyptians in the 1700s led wealthy people to want to be embalmed - something previously only used in anatomy (Image: Getty)

Dressed in her wedding gown with glass eyes and preservatives adding colour to her lifeless cheeks, Mrs Van Butchel was such an attraction for would-be customers that her husband had to take out a notice in the newspaper limiting visitors to between 9am and 1pm Monday to Saturday, and only if they had been introduced to him in advance by a friend.

The grisly spectacle was eventually removed only after the objections of the second Mrs Van Butchel.

Some 250 years later, our appetite for dental-related corpse displays may have vanished but our funeral practices remain rooted in the 18th Century and the influence of anatomy.

It made commercial sense to delay decomposition in cadavers used in teaching - they were an expensive resource - but less so if they were to be burned or buried.

Nonetheless, embalming remains standard practice today.

The sometimes bizarre history - and intriguing future - of human body disposal will be in the spotlight on Tuesday as the Edinburgh Science Festival hosts a discussion on the topic.

Ms Irving, one of the speakers, noted that it was the American Civil War of the 1860s which turned embalming into a "massive thing" in the United States.

She said: "You've got all these young men dying far from home and you have these embalming agencies saying 'we have a way of getting your son's body back'.

"These embalmers set up near the battlefield offering people pre-payment plans in case they died, so that their bodies could get home to their families."

The Herald: Modern funeral practices date back more than 200 years, but can be costly and environmentally unfriendlyModern funeral practices date back more than 200 years, but can be costly and environmentally unfriendly (Image: PA)

In contemporary Scotland, people still come to funeral parlours with "a very traditional, Victorian-esque funeral in mind", says Jasper Chanter, a funeral arranger based in Leith, Edinburgh.

A push towards more eco-friendly alternatives means this could be about to change, however.

In 2023, England became the first part of the UK to legalise water cremations - colloquially dubbed "boil-in-the-bag" funerals.

The process - already available in the US, Canada, and South Africa - rapidly dissolves bodies through a process of alkaline hydrolysis which mimics natural decomposition using a chemical solution heated to 160°C.

The end result is a combination of powdered bone and liquid which can be safely released into the drain system or returned to family members to scatter.

"[The liquid] is actually a very good fertiliser," said Ms Chanter.

"It might not be for everyone, but if you've got someone who really loved their garden they can go back to that and actively help it to flourish."

Although not yet legal in Scotland, Ms Chanter hopes that water cremation could eventually offer families a more affordable "green" funeral compared to so-called eco burials where bodies are wrapped in shrouds or placed inside biodegradable coffins.

She said: "Eco burial is not a cheap option. Land is expensive whether you are alive or dead, so it's not an option for everyone.

"My hope is that introducing alkaline hydrolysis will make an eco-friendly option more viable from a money perspective for more people."

The Herald: An aquamation facility in Pretoria, South Africa. Water cremation uses much less energy and avoids the emissions associated with traditional furnace cremationAn aquamation facility in Pretoria, South Africa. Water cremation uses much less energy and avoids the emissions associated with traditional furnace cremation (Image: Getty)

Another option taking hold in the US is "human composting".

In January, New York became the sixth state to legalise the process which uses heat and oxygen to accelerate the microbial process which converts bodies into soil.

"It takes longer than alkaline hydrolysis or fire cremation, but it's a really interesting way of people being able to go back to nature," said Ms Chanter.

"It uses certain bacteria, certain mushrooms - it's very cool. If you look at the different centres where they're offering it, they set them up in this honeycomb-type fashion with lots of different pods where people can go in.

"It's not something to my knowledge that is under discussion in the UK yet, but there are people out there who are interested in making it part of the discussion around body disposal in the UK."

Ms Chanter, a former bookseller, entered the funeral business just over a year ago and launched her podcast, Deathinitions, in March 2023 to help address what she describes as the "Chinese whispers" of misinformation which surround deathcare.

She said: "People come in with all sorts of ideas about what they think happens to the body in the cremation or burial process.

"A lot of the time it's not true, but it can scare families and cause them quite a lot of distress when they're told these urban legends.

"It's a healthy dose of myth-busting to try to give people a clearer picture of what happens and, more to the point, what doesn't happen."

But what if you don't want to be cremated or buried or composted or dissolved into human fertiliser?

You could donate your remains to medical schools. Roughly 1,400 people a year do so in the UK, enabling students to hone their surgical skills on cadavers first.

The Herald: Around 1,400 people a year in the UK donate their bodies to medical schoolsAround 1,400 people a year in the UK donate their bodies to medical schools (Image: Getty)

It can also be a way of avoiding funeral costs as the universities will pick up the tab for cremation and host memorial services.

Alternatively, you could posthumously help solve crimes. 

In North America, Australia, and the Netherlands, people can choose to donate their corpses to human taphonomy facilities - or "body farms" - which specialise in the the study of decomposition.

A relatively new phenomenon, the world's first taphonomy research centre was established in Tennessee in 1981 following an unexpected twist in a homicide investigation.

The state's head forensic anthropologist, Bill Bass, had been called to the disturbed grave of a civil war hero, Colonel William Shy.

A few metres down, outside the coffin, was a headless corpse in an otherwise surprisingly good state of preservation.

Dr Anna Williams, a forensic anthropologist and professor of forensic science at the University of Central Lancashire, said: "There was still flesh apparent, some of the joints were still intact, there was still pink flesh that he could see.

"Because of the hot and humid climate in Tennessee, he estimated that this body couldn't have been more than three to six months old."


Detectives suspected that what they had found were the remains of a recent murder victim, hidden in an old grave.

"They excavated it, took it to the mortuary, examined it a bit more, but then they began to get a bit suspicious," said Prof Williams.

"They discovered that his clothes were all natural fibres, and when they found the skull they discovered that he didn't have any modern dental work.

"They also found that he had a gunshot wound in his skull in the same way that Colonel William Shy had been killed.

"Plus he had the right osteological profile - he was the right age, the right height - to be Colonel William Shy.

"So they realised that's who it was. But it meant that Bill Bass' estimation for how long the body had been there was out by over 100 years, and that his understanding of how decomposition worked was wrong."

At Bass' request, the University of Tennessee in Knoxville set aside a small plot of land where bodies could be buried and studied in various stages of decay.

The findings have transformed forensic science.

The Herald: Scientists including Professor Williams have been pushing for a UK 'body farm' for yearsScientists including Professor Williams have been pushing for a UK 'body farm' for years (Image: Getty)

Prof Williams said: "The accumulation of knowledge that we've got out of these facilities has helped immeasurably with investigation of murders and natural decomposition as well - neglect cases and so on.

"Our understanding of decomposition has increased exponentially.

"We know that one body can show different decomposition in different parts of the body. We now have mathematical formulae for working out the post-mortem interval.

"The whole discipline of forensic entomology [the study of insects and arthropods in criminal investigation] has been born as a result of these facilities.

"We know about chemical analysis of soil and how you can detect whether a body has been there even if it's been moved.

"The persistence of trace evidence is an important one. How long after death do fingerprints last? Can we get DNA of a perpetrator from the body?

"It's only slowly over the years that these facilities have allowed us to build up empirical evidence, but the problem is that the ones in other countries have different conditions - different soils, different insects, different climates.

"So while their information is useful, it's not terribly applicable to UK conditions. That's why we need one in the UK."

The UK Human Tissue Authority would be responsible for regulating such a facility, but taphonomy is not currently included among the activities for which it can grant a licence.

It would be up to MPs to pass legislation first.

Prof Williams believes there is a growing appetite for the research. She envisages that the UK could adopt a Dutch-style model of "forensic cemeteries" where bodies are buried in different conditions with lots of monitoring equipment and sensors so that decomposition can be tracked remotely, without the need to regularly excavate bodies.

"We'd want to keep it as unobjectionable as possible," she added.

'Disposing on the Body' is at the National Museum of Scotland on April 2