How Does Embalming Work?

Although not much is known in the general public about the practice of embalming, it is a very common thing to do when there is to be a funeral.  The reason very little is known about this practice is because funeral directors are bound by ethics, much like doctors are, and they do not discuss the process or the tools used to perform embalming. 

The average person knows that embalming allows the body to remain in viewable condition for a considerably longer period of time than without embalming, but they do not know what the real purposes are behind the practice.

The decision to embalm your loved one or not to embalm your loved one is normally a very simple decision.  If there will be a viewing the body is almost always embalmed.  If there is to be no viewing and immediate cremation the body may not be embalmed instead it is moved to the crematorium right away. 

In some situations it is not even up to the family to choose; and the body is embalmed whether they want it to be or not.  In other cases religious beliefs prevent the family from having the loved one embalmed.

Embalming begins with the complete sanitation of the outside of the body.  The body is washed completely with antibacterial soaps to remove any odor causing bacteria or any contagions that might be present.  This external washing also clears away any blood or other bodily fluids that might have been left behind from the persons passing.  All entrances to the body are also cleaned including the mouth nose and eyes, as these are entry and exit points for bacteria or possible communicable disease. 

Hair is washed, faces shaven in the cases of men, and any residual make up a woman might have been wearing is removed.  The eyes and the mouth are closed using specialized closure techniques.  The funeral director will be very careful to ensure the eyes and mouth look relaxed, as if they are closed in a deep peaceful sleep. 

At this point the chemical portion of the embalming begins.  Embalming chemicals contain agents that retard the growth of bacteria.  It is after all bacteria that cause the body to decompose.  Chemicals are injected into the nearest large artery that is accessible and the fluid then exit through the corresponding vein. 

Once all the fluid has been displaced from the body the incision is closed and the individual is dressed in the outfit that was provided by the family.  By this point the stiff look that most people are used of seeing at a funeral has begun to set in.  It is the embalming chemicals that cause this stiff appearance. 

This process helps also to restore a more presentable appearance.  The chemicals are colored in a way that helps the body to take on a more lifelike color instead of the grey waxy look that creeps up when the person has just passed away.

Embalming the deceased allows the family to make travel arrangements for out of town family, and to get together to plan for the funeral if it was not pre planned.

In some cases there is no choice as to whether the deceased will be embalmed.  Each state has their own laws regarding embalming but most states agree that if a body is to be moved between states after death for the purposes of burial or funeral, it must be embalmed before it can be moved.  This prevents the body from decomposing in transit as well as it prevents the spread of disease. 

When a communicable disease is present in the body of a person who has passed away, such as tuberculosis, or similar diseases the state might insist on embalming to prevent its spread.  If for any reason there will be a prolonged period between death and interment (burial or cremation) of the body, such as storage in a public vault awaiting a summer burial; most states insist that the body be embalmed as well. 

Transporting a body across international borders will always require embalming in the case of a person passing while on vacation for instance. 

In a seemingly normal death barring all the above mentioned circumstances the family can decide whether or not they wish for their loved one to be embalmed.  The most common reason for refusal of embalming is religious reasons.  There are several religions that prohibit or recommend against embalming some of these religions are Hinduism, Muslim, Judaism.

Although they do not generally want to be embalmed, Hindus have been known to allow it for the purposes of being buried in their native homeland.  International movement of the deceased requires that the body be embalmed.

Muslim’s prefer to be buried within 24 hours of their death after their body is simply washed and dressed by a same sex relative.  They prefer to be buried without a casket as well.  This practice is not legal across the majority of North America.

Much like Muslim’s the Jewish people prefer to be buried within 24 hours of death wherever possible.  When this cannot happen or if the body is being transported to Israel for burial embalming is permitted.

In any event, religious preferences or laws are overridden by the local laws when there is any dispute about whether or not a person will be embalmed.  If the governing body of the state or country where the death occurred insists on it, it must be done.  This is also the case when the country where the death occurred does not insist, if the body is being moved to another country or state, the receiving country or state may insist on embalming before accepting the body.