Most people accept embalming as part of the traditional funeral process, yet many of us do not really know what it is. Simply put, embalming is the process of preserving a body for public viewing. If a body is embalmed, it is preserved in what looks like a natural state’ thus, loved ones can spend the time they need to say good bye with a viewing and farewell service honoring the one who has passed away.
When my father died, it took a week to get everyone together, so we could have a funeral. His body was embalmed so that when we finally had the service, we were able to see, what seemed to be my father as he looked in life, in a three-piece suit, and his rosary in his hands.
Embalming is not new. It has been around for thousands of years. Egyptians slowed the decaying of bodies with mummification. Preserving the body of a loved one is cross cultural, and if researched you will find that most ancient cultures had some way of keeping the body in tact for as long as possible after death. Though we no longer mummify bodies, the process has influenced modern day embalming.
The tradition of embalming in America, what is called modern arterial embalming, began during the Civil War. The story is told about Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, a friend of Abraham Lincoln, who was one of the first well-known casualties of the war.
According to the story, Dr. Thomas Holmes had been experimenting with French embalming practices, so he embalmed Ellsworth’s body and had it sent to his hometown in New York. The colonel was buried ten days after he died.
After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, his body was cremated so it would be suitable for the long national mourning period. Preserving him in as natural state as possible helped alleviated the shock of his violent and tragic death.
As with any war, thousands of soldiers died far away from home; therefore, embalming became a common practice so bodies could be preserved and sent back home for burials. To have a loved one die far away from home on a battlefield is devastating. Having a body to bury and to visit helps ease some of the sadness families experience.
Initially, the war was the motivator for preserving bodies; however, by the end of the 19th century, embalming became a more common practice as the funeral parlor and undertaker became a more common part of society.
According to the story I was told, when my grandfather’s first wife died of gangrene as a complication of childbirth, she was put in a casket with a glass cover and was set in the parlor of the home for two days. Whoever was available could visit, but after two days, she had to be buried because of the smell and body decomposition.
No one from her home of Pittsburg could get to the funeral in the time span allotted because of transportation issues. This was the reality in the late 1800’s in a small community, without an undertaker who embalmed.
With the onset of the 20th century, more people became interested in being trained as undertakers and the funeral parlor became a function of the community. Because of this, embalming was available to more families; therefore, people could actually set a funeral date and wait for people to come to attend. The body was preserved and the fear of decomposition was no longer an issue.
Today, we take embalming for granted, and we think nothing of delaying a funeral service so we can create the most meaningful life celebration with all we wish to come in attendance.
If the traditional process of embalming is used, the body becomes hard though it looks very life like and soft. As a child, my father looked as if he were sleeping. I remember kissing him goodbye, surprised his cheeks were no longer soft. Though I was not afraid, I will always remember that kiss and the fact that it stayed on the surface of his cheek. It could no longer nestle into his usual chubby cheek.
To Embalm Or Not To Embalm
When a loved one dies, you have to make the decision regarding how you will dispose of the body. In fact, when it comes to your own demise, you also need to decide, with family members, how you want your body disposed of after death. You do not have to go the traditional route, but if you do, embalming is part of the traditional process.
In fact, in some situations, it is a legal requirement. If a body is moved across international, state or county lines, it is legally required that it be embalmed. Otherwise, embalming is an option.
Natural decomposition starts to occur rather quickly after death, giving the skin a waxy look. Embalming helps restore the body to a more natural state, and if you wish to have a viewing and service, which does not occur immediately after death, it is the best way to be able to share the person who has died with others who want to be part of the farewell.
What Is Embalming?
Embalming refers to the process of preserving the remains of a loved one by stopping decomposition. Chemicals are used in this process for sanitation, preservation and presentation purposes.
Sanitizing the body includes washing it in an antimicrobic, disinfectant solution. It is preformed to delay decomposition as well as eliminate odors.
Preserving the body includes draining the body of blood and interstitial fluid (the fluid between the tissues of the cells) and replacing it with embalming fluid. Though the body will decompose at some point, these chemicals temporarily keep the body in its most recent condition.
Presenting the body includes getting the body ready to be seen by others. The body will be massaged to help get rid of the rigor mortis, so it can be placed in a natural pose, the face will be set to a normal expression, and it will be shaved or made up, hair will be done, and clothes will be put on so the body looks natural.
Types of Embalming
Arterial embalming involves injecting the embalming fluid into the carotid artery, using a centrifugal pump to displace the blood, which is drained though the right jugular vein, as well as other bodily fluids.
If a clot is present, it is massaged out to make sure the fluid is evenly distributed throughout the body. Injecting the fluid can usually be done with one injection; however, multiple injection sites can be necessary to make sure the fluid is evenly displaced.
A specialized machine pumps the fluid into the body as well as monitors the vessels during the process. The machine is usually sufficient for the process but it has happened that fluid has been injected into certain areas of the body, using a hypodermic needle, to assure all areas are even.
Cavity embalming involves making an incision in the abdomen above the navel. A trocar is inserted into the incision and the contents of the organs are aspirated. The peritoneal cavity, or belly, is then filled with concentrated embalming fluid and closed by suturing or a trocar button.
A trocar is a surgical instrument with a sharp point that is used to create a hole in the body. It is commonly attached to tubes called cannulas, and it is used as a drainage outlet. When the organs are aspirated means the fluid in them is removed.
The Steps of the Process of Arterial Embalming
Once a person has been declared dead and the body has been moved to a funeral parlor, embalming will start.
The body is placed on its back, lying down, with the head elevated, on whatever structure is used for the process. My stepfather was a mortician, and in his embalming area he used metal carts. Though the body has been declared dead, prior to beginning the process, the embalmer will recertify the body as dead and place a toe tag on it.
Bathing of the body
The personal effects and clothing are removed from the body, and it is washed, using an antimicrobic/disinfectant soap. The openings to the body are rinsed thoroughly and the legs and arms are massaged to ease the sign of rigor that have begun.
Preparing of the body
Once the body is sanitized, the embalmer will begin to pose the facial feature, closing the eyes, using an eye cap, and shutting the lips. It might be the lips will be sutured shut or wired shut or an adhesive can be used. The embalmer decides which method is best of the body he or she is working with.
Replacing blood and other bodily fluid with embalming fluid, a formaldehyde-based preserving substance
Once the face is set, the embalmer will replace the bodily fluids with the chemicals used of embalming by injecting them into the vessel and peritoneal cavity of the body. A variety of injection methods do exist, and the embalmer decides which one he or she will use.
Preparation of body for viewing
The last step of embalming is making sure the body looks are natural as it can for viewing by loved ones. Cosmetics are used to add color, even out color, or hide discolorations such as bruises. Usually, the embalmer asks for a picture to make sure he or she makes the face look as much like the person as possible.
Hair is styled using oils and gels and powder is used to cover any odor that may result. The body is dressed in whatever clothes the family wants, from formal to casual. My father wore a three-piece suit, but my aunt wore her favorite moo-moo as comfort was always her style.
If the body has undergone any trauma, restorative work is done to return the body to as natural state as possible. If the case is severe, embalmers who are trained in post-mortem reconstructive surgery can be called in to assure the body is restored to its previous condition.
Embalming and Grief
To some the process of embalming and viewing is distasteful. However, to many it is a way to continue to take care of a loved one and be with him or her one last time. It helps with the grieving process, providing time for last visits, sitting with the loved one and saying goodbye in your own time and way. Funeral directors refer to this as creating a memory picture, a final impression of the person before he or she died, and suggest that this is a necessary part of grieving.
When my friend’s son died, she spent time just sitting with him, holding his hand and talking. She found a sort of comfort selecting his clothes one last time, and making sure he looked just like he did when he was healthy.
Some find the process of a viewing a way to find closure. We see the body, we know he or she is dead and we have time to let go.
Regardless of your personal needs, preserving the body for a time after death so you can say goodbye is seen as healing for many people.
State Laws Concerning Embalming
The Funeral Trade Commission, an organization many of us have never even heard about, has a section on embalming in the Funeral Rule section. In this section, it is made clear that general state law does not require embalming.
No state can require embalming for every death; however, some states may and do require it in certain situations. For example, if you choose to keep the body for an extended period of time before burial without refrigeration, then the body will have to be embalmed.
It is important that you know the laws of your state when it comes to embalming.
Because travel is almost commonplace in the world today, it is not that unheard of that a loved one dies miles from home, which means the body will have to be transported back home. If the body is not cremated, it may have to be embalmed so it can be returned to you.
Culture/Traditions and Embalming
Families have needs when it comes to transitioning through a loss. Certain cultures have customs for burial that include days of mourning, including viewing of the body and the burial. Many religions have traditions for acceptable disposal of a body.
Though bodies can be preserved in dry ice and then transported, it is not the most practical process and if suggested to a grieving family that is steeped in its culture and religion, it is almost cruel. Funerals are for the living, and embalming is done so families can grieve and honor their dead. Regardless of what some may think, the process of embalming and a funeral is integral to the cultural norms of many families and to their healing process.
Funeral Home Requirements for Embalming
Although you do not have to embalm the body of your loved one, a funeral home may have policies in place that are in opposition to your desires. It is important to ask questions and shop around to make sure the funeral home you choose does not require certain processes based on its own internal policies.
The average cost of embalming is about $500, with a range anywhere from $200 to $1000. This charge is added to the funeral bill, and it is usually covered by funeral insurance, if you have it, or it is included in the price list given to people who have a pre-paid funeral plan.
The costs of body enhancement, washing, dressing and cosmetically preparing the body for viewing, are not covered in the embalming fee. These services can run from $100 to $400.
If the body needs post-mortem reconstructive surgery, it costs extra, and it can run anywhere from $200 to $1,200. When my father died, there was a huge gash on his forehead where his head hit the steering wheel.
It was deep and very discolored. Since it was important to my mother that my father not look made up, being a turn of the century man’s man, minor reconstructive surgery was done to make his forehead look as it usually did.
Here are two examples of price lists for embalming, preservation and presentation:
Armstrong Funeral Homes in Iowa
Morrell Funeral Home in Pennsylvania
Preparation and Embalming $1,000
Extensive restoration $100
Dressing and casketing, cosmetic restoration $600
Natural oils can be used in place of the chemical embalming fluid, but they do not keep the body as long as chemicals do, so the viewing/funeral has to be planned sooner after death than if you chose embalming.
Green embalming is an environmentally, healthy and safe way to preserve a body. The traditional embalming fluid is replaced with a non-toxic, non-carcinogenic, formaldehyde-free fluid, usually made from biodegradable essential oils. This process not only protects the embalmer from the effects of the harsh chemicals of traditional embalming fluid, but it also saves the earth from more toxic chemicals entering and causing harm.
If you are looking for a more environmentally safe process, do your research. Many funeral homes do not have this option, so you will need to do your homework. Also, remember, that green embalming requires you are more timely with the after death services.
For those who are environmentally concerned, green funerals are becoming popular. Evidence has been gathered that supports the fact that embalming may be detrimental to the environment. The metals used to make caskets as well as the gravel liners and the chemicals uses with preservation account for a sizable amount of damage to the earth annually.
The costs of a green funeral are much less than a traditional funeral, using bamboo or jute coffins, holding bodies preserved with green embalming. Of course you must realize, not all cemeteries accept bodies for green embalming and burial so you must do your research to find a place.
I know a green burial option exists in Tennessee because my children looked into it since I do think about what I want done when my life ends. Since Tennessee is far from Wisconsin, it is not an option according to my children because it is too far away, and it is not my home. I share this because emotions are part of end of life decisions so it is important to have that family discussion.
Embalming is a personal choice; however, it has almost become commonplace as part of a traditional burial service. Costs vary and funeral homes have different policies and requirements in place, so it is important to ask questions, do your research and comparison-shop.
Many funeral directors support embalming as an important part of the grieving process because it allows the family and loved ones more time to say goodbye, what they call a memorial picture.
In recent years, green embalming has become an option, for those who are concerned about the chemicals used in a traditional embalming and how they affect the earth. Whatever you choose, be sure it is what you want and not what you feel pressured to do. The final farewell of a loved one is personal as are the choices involved.