Embalming is a common part of funerals throughout the United States today. However, many people don’t realize that embalming is not a requirement in most cases, and it is not widely practiced outside of North America.
The decision to embalm is entirely up to the individual. For someone planning a funeral for a loved one or pre-planning their own, they may wonder if embalming is the right choice. When making the decision, it can be helpful to have some general knowledge about the practice and what it involves.
What is Embalming, and Why is it Practiced?
The process of embalming involves the draining of bodily fluids and the introduction of a preserving fluid – embalming fluid – into the body to slow down decomposition.
The main reason people choose embalming is to preserve the appearance of the deceased for a public open-casket viewing.
While many people choose embalming because they think it will preserve a body over the long term, this is a common misconception. Embalming only delays the decomposition process for a few weeks.
What’s in Embalming Fluid?
Embalming fluid is a mixture of strong and toxic chemicals, some of which are known carcinogens. Their purpose is to preserve the body and slow decomposition, so the substances required in the mix understandably need to be quite powerful. Embalming fluid consists of preservatives, sanitizing agents, disinfectants, solvents, conditioners, and water.
The preservative used in embalming fluid is formaldehyde, in a ratio of up to 35% of the mix. Glutaraldehyde, a disinfectant, is also present in the solution between 9% and 56%, as well as methanol to a certain extent. Some of the other substances in embalming fluid include:
Conditioners. Water conditioners help decrease acidity and deactivate certain drugs. Cell conditioners allow for better absorption of embalming fluid.
Dyes. Some dyes help to improve a body’s coloration, while others allow the embalmer to see the proper distribution of the embalming fluid.
Humectants. Also called wetting agents, humectants improve the appearance of hydration in a body.
Anti-Edemics. These chemicals serve the opposite purpose of humectants; they reduce excessive fluids in a body.
A funeral professional who performs embalmings wears a special suit as protection from the toxic chemicals. For safety reasons, no unauthorized personnel (such as family members) are allowed in the room where embalming is taking place.
Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Embalming
One argument against embalming is the obvious toxicity of the chemicals used in the process. To counter this issue, some embalming fluid manufacturers have developed what they claim are “green” embalming options. These fluids are free from formaldehyde, and are supposedly environmentally safe and biodegradable.
Of course, the “greenest” option of all would be a green burial that does not involve any type of embalming whatsoever. There are many alternatives to embalming, including a number of methods that actually nourish the Earth.
The choice to embalm or not embalm is a personal one and it depends on what is most important to you. With alternative practices such as direct cremations and green burials on the rise, embalming is becoming less prevalent than it was in past decades. The degree to which it’s usage declines will be an interesting trend to follow in the years ahead.