Everything You Need to Know About Embalming

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If you’ve been to a funeral with an open casket, there’s a good chance the deceased person was embalmed. But what exactly is embalming, and why is it done?

What is embalming?

Embalming is a technique for preserving a deceased person’s body. It’s often used to prepare the body for a viewing or funeral, and may also be used before a body is transported a long distance. Embalming does not preserve a body forever. It only delays decomposition temporarily.

Embalming in history

The ancient Egyptians developed the first embalming rituals before 4000 B.C. in alignment with their beliefs about the afterlife. Their religion held that those who died would be resurrected and that their souls would make use of their bodies once again, so those bodies required preservation.

In the 1850s, an American surgeon named Thomas Holmes developed what he believed was a non-toxic means of preserving cadavers to be examined by medical students: To prevent bodies from decomposing, he injected them with a mixture of arsenic and water. His embalming method gained widespread popularity as a funerary practice during the Civil War, when the need arose to preserve the remains of soldiers who died far from their homes as they were returned to their families for burial.

The modern embalming process

Note: This section contains explicit descriptions that some readers may find upsetting.

Once a doctor and/or medical examiner has authorized the removal of a deceased person’s body and their family has selected a funeral professional to prepare it for its final disposition, that professional can perform an embalming. (Authorization must be verbally granted from the next of kin.)

The embalmer begins by cleaning the body, then massaging it to counter the effects of rigor mortis. After closing and securing the eyes and mouth, they perform arterial embalming by removing the blood from the body through its veins and replacing it with an embalming solution, which is typically a mixture of formaldehyde and other chemicals (embalmers ceased using poisonous arsenic more than 100 years ago). They then embalm the body’s cavities by suctioning the gas and fluids from the organs in the chest and abdomen, then injecting a much stronger concentration of preservative solution to replace them. Finally, the embalmer washes and dries their subject’s body and hair.

The cosmetic portion of the process—that is, restorations (such as rebuilding features or masking trauma to the body), the application of makeup, dressing the body in an outfit chosen by the family, and hair styling—are occasionally  performed by the same person and sometimes included in the overall cost of the embalming. More frequently, there is a separate charge for these final preparations. In some cases, the family may wish to bathe, dress and manage the makeup themselves.

Cost of embalming

According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the national median cost of embalming as of 2017 was $725; the median cost of other preparations of the body (such as applying makeup and other cosmetic techniques) was $250. Depending on where you live and the funeral home you select, the combined cost of these processes can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

When is embalming required?

Federal law does not require embalming under any circumstances. State and local laws may require embalming in some situations, such as when a body crosses certain state lines. Traditional funeral directors tend to see embalming as a prerequisite for formal open-casket viewings prior to cremation or burial (especially when a big crowd is expected). But there is generally no sanitation- or public health–related need to embalm bodies. In fact, embalmers are exposed to more health risks from embalming than not embalming at all.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC)’s Funeral Rule allows families to select only the goods and services they wish to purchase when making arrangements for the final disposition of a loved one, either before or after death. Funeral service providers must get express permission from a family member or authorized person to embalm, and they must explain clearly whether or not embalming is legally required based on the other funeral services the family desires.  

While embalming is common in North America, it is not common in the rest of the world. Certain religions, including Judaism and Islam, forbid it.

Alternatives to embalming

Formaldehyde is allergenic, toxic, and a known carcinogen, and the formaldehyde used to embalm bodies eventually leaches into the soil and air. Those in search of a more environmentally-friendly form of embalming can seek professionals that use biodegradable fluids, which are usually made from plant-based ingredients such as essential oils.

Refrigeration is an effective means of temporary preservation for those who do not opt for immediate burial or direct cremation after death. If you wish to avoid embalming, ask local funeral service providers about their refrigeration capabilities. You can also seek out a funeral home certified by the Green Burial Council. Or look for a home funeral guide who is skilled in the use of dry ice to keep deceased people cool and viewable after a hospice-supervised death in a residence.

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