Everything You Want To Know About Embalming…And Even the Things You Don't


Posted on April 26, 2016 by

What is embalming?

Embalming is the treatment of a deceased individual to temporarily preserve and forestall decomposition. In 1867, chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann discovered formaldehyde, replacing the use of arsenic in the 20th century, and became the foundation for modern methods of embalming. Modern embalming cocktails contain a mixture of formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, ethanol, humectants and other wetting agents. 

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What is embalming? What happens when the body is embalmed? (10 Steps) Can you have a public viewing of an unembalmed body?
The purpose of embalming? How long does the embalming take? Is an unembalmed body dangerous?
When did embalming start? Embalming costs? Alternatives to embalming?
How long does embalming last? Embalming's impact on the environment?  

What is the purpose of embalming?

There are three common uses for embalming: temporary preservation of the body, restoration or presentation, and “sanitation”.

When did the practice of embalming start?

How long does embalming preserve the body for?Embalming began in the late 1800’s, during the Victorian era, as a means to preserve human remains for scientific study. It grew steadily in the 19th century in the funeral industry as demand increased by those who wished to be buried in remote locations and display the body of the deceased. In the United States, embalming became popular during the Civil War when returning deceased servicemen and officials home for local burials. The US and Canada are the only countries where the practice of embalming is so widespread that it is considered routine and ordinary (Final Rights and

Embalming for funeral purposes can last from a day to a week or so, depending on the chemicals, strength and methods used and the temperature and humidity of where they are being stored (Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death). The length of preservation depends greatly on the rate of decomposition. Bodies embalmed for medical donation use a much stronger solution of chemicals than mortuary-embalming in order to preserve the bodies from 6 months to 2 years, resulting in a leather-like texture, undesirable for cosmetic-purposes such as a funeral.

What happens when a body is embalmed?

Embalming is an invasive procedure that involves the injection of chemical solutions into the arteries, tissues and sometimes organs and draining of the deceased's fluids to slow decomposition and restore the physical appearance of the deceased for cosmetic purposes. Mortuary embalming is a complex process and involves these common 10 steps:

Step 1: Lay them down to sleep.

To begin, the deceased is undressed and placed on their back, with private areas covered, on a mortuary table with the head elevated by a head block.

Step 2: Check the vitals.

The next step, possibly the most important, involves checking vital signs to prevent premature burial. Embalmers check for clouded corneas, lividity, rigor mortis, and a pulse in the carotid or radial artery.

Step 3: Bathe and massage.

The death of the cadaver confirmed, embalmers then wash the deceased with disinfectant and germicidal solutions while bending, flexing, and massaging arms and legs to relieve rigor mortis.

Step 4: Setting of the face.

Before any incision is made, embalmers will set the features of the deceased, often times using a photo provided by the family or friends to set the eyes and mouth. The eyes are posed using an eye-cap, which keeps the eyes shut and in a “natural” expression. The mouth is then set by wiring  the jaw shut, suturing the lips and gums and then adhesive is used to make the expression look as relaxed and natural as possible.

Step 5: Arterial embalming; drain and eject.

Once the expression is set, arterial embalming begins. Arterial embalming is the process of draining the blood vessels while simultaneously injecting embalming chemicals into arteries. This is done using a centrifugal pump, which mimics the beating of a heart, while massaging the body to break up blood clots and ensure thorough distribution of embalming fluid. The blood, which is expelled as the fluid is injected, is then sent down the drain and into the sewer.

Step 6: Cavity embalming; aspirate and concentrate.

Following arterial embalming is cavity embalming. Cavity embalming involves removing any built up gas and fluids in the organs with an aspirator and filling them with concentrated embalming chemicals using a trocar (a large-bore hollow needle). Other orifices are plugged with cotton or a special A/V tool to prevent undesired leakage as the body decomposes.

Step 7: Hypodermic embalming; for those hard to reach places.

Hypodermic embalming is a supplemental method of embalming in which fluid is injected into the tissue using a hypodermic needle and syringe to treat areas where arterial fluids did not reach. Hypodermic embalming is used on a case-by-case basis.

Step 8: Surface embalming and washing.

Surface embalming utilizes embalming chemicals to restore surface damage due to decomposition, cancer or other epidermal injury and is applied directly to the skin. This is an ‘as needed’ step which is either followed or replaced by re-washing and drying the deceased.

Step 9: Moisturize and make-up.

A moisturizing cream or lotion is applied to the deceased and makeup is applied to the face, neck and hands to mimic a natural complexion. Hair gel or baby oil may be applied to the hair and styled while baby powder is applied to the body to eliminate odors. Sometimes wax, plaster of Paris, and other cosmetic techniques are used to reconstruct features.

Step 10: Dress and situate for viewing.

The deceased is dressed for visitation or funeral service and placed in the coffin or casket of choice.

How long does the embalming process take?

A typical embalming takes 45 minutes to an hour to complete. Cosmetology, dressing, and "casketing" of the body may prolong the process to several hours.

How much does embalming cost?

Prices for mortuary embalming vary and range from $495 to $1290 and may include additional charges for dressing, casketing (placing the body in the casket), and cosmetology work. Embalmers are typically paid by the hour and fees take into consideration the high-risk nature of the work.

What impact does embalming have on the environment?

Embalmers are required to wear full-body covering and a respirator while embalming due to the high toxicity of formaldehyde. Embalmers and their methods are not strictly regulated, however, and the blood and other fluid waste are disposed of in the sewer system or septic tank. Although the blood waste is mixed with powerful disinfecting chemicals and is not a direct threat to public health, it does have an adverse effect on the environment. Approximately 5.3 million gallons of embalming fluid is used each year in the U.S. and the contents range from 5-35% formaldehyde and 9-56% ethanol.

Formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, is on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list of top 10% most hazardous and damaging chemicals.

When an embalmed body decays, the fluid can seep into the ground and affect surrounding soil and water ecosystems, and if cremated, the formaldehyde enters and remains in the atmosphere for up to 250 days. Formaldehyde, a known carcinogen in humans and animals, is water soluble and when found in the atmosphere, combines with condensation and rains down onto plants, animals and water supplies (Chiappelli, Jeremiah; Chiappelli, Ted (2008). "Drinking Grandma: The Problem of Embalming". Journal of Environmental Health). Various National Cancer Institute studies reported an increased risk of death due to lymphoma, leukemia and some brain cancers in those exposed to formaldehyde in their professions and the chemical is featured on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list of top 10% most hazardous and damaging chemicals to the environment.

Can you have a public viewing of an unembalmed body?

Private or home viewing by family members and close friends can occur without embalming in all U.S. states. There are no state or federal laws that require embalming. For public viewings held in a funeral home, embalming may be required by the funeral home. In instances in which a body is shipped across state lines or for long distances, state law may dictate the use of embalming, although this varies and dry ice and a sealed container may be used.

Is an unembalmed body dangerous?

According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control embalming provides no public health benefit and may contribute significantly to the spread of infectious disease and increased risks of cancer amongst funeral care practitioner. So, no, unembalmed, natural bodies are not dangerous!

What are some alternatives to embalming?

Alternatives to embalming revolve around the necessity to keep the body cool and dry to temporarily inhibit decomposition and preserve the body. This includes the use of dry ice, gel packs, freezer packs, or refrigeration as an effective, cost-conscious and eco-friendly substitute to embalming. By eliminating this service you could save hundreds of dollars. Not all funeral homes have refrigeration facilities so call and check ahead. 

Refrigeration is the easiest, most economical method of body preservation.

For instances when embalming is the desired option, consider embalming with Enigma, a more eco-friendly alternative to formaldehyde. Otherwise, burial or cremation within 48 hours of death, known as a "immediate burial" and "direct cremation" eliminate the need for embalming and cut costs significantly. Both services are required to be offered by every funeral home in the USA.

Jump to a topic using a link below:

What is embalming? What happens when the body is embalmed? (10 Steps) Can you have a public viewing of an unembalmed body?
The purpose of embalming? How long does the embalming take? Is an unembalmed body dangerous?
When did embalming start? Embalming costs? Alternatives to embalming?
How long does embalming last? Embalming's impact on the environment?  
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