Losing someone you care about is devastating. In the moment of grief, you may need to quickly make difficult decisions about funeral arrangements and preparations for your loved one’s body. Understanding options like embalming can help simplify these confusing end-of-life choices.
This blog covers common questions about embalming, its purpose, what the process entails, why people choose it, alternatives available, and essential health and environmental impact considerations.
What is Embalming?
Embalming means temporarily preserving a deceased person’s body from decay. Chemical solutions are used to replace blood and bodily fluids to retain an acceptable physical appearance of the body. The preservation allows for public viewing during memorial services, even if there is a more extended timeframe between death and the funeral proceedings.
The Embalming Process
Embalming, as a process, can repair physical damages to the extent that the person reforms their appearance for public viewing and funeral services. So, if your loved one unfortunately suffered a traumatic death, embalming their body could be a wise option.
The purpose of embalming
The purpose of embalming could vary depending on the circumstances. While it lifts any time constraints around scheduling funeral proceedings, it also serves as a more dignified commemoration for far-flung loved ones to attend. The process makes the closure easier and allows you to bid them an emotionally stable farewell as you see them as much as they looked while they were around.
Licensed professionals who conduct embalming are trained to follow stringent health precautions throughout each step of the procedure:
Preparation of the Body
The body is thoroughly cleaned and laid on an embalming table. Facial features are set in place, and eyes and mouth are gently closed. The body is posed in a restful position.
In this step, the professional injects a specialized embalming chemical solution into an artery, often the neck’s carotid artery or the leg’s femoral artery. At the same time, they drain blood from a nearby vein. The solution then spreads through the vascular system of vessels and capillaries to diffuse the embalming chemicals throughout the body’s tissues.
As per the requirements, internal organs within the chest and abdominal cavities may also be treated directly with specialized embalming chemicals before tightly packing the cavities to retain a natural bodily form.
After the vascular embalming, minor external cosmetic restorations may be made, such as setting more normal facial features and closing the eyes and mouth. Hair may be washed and groomed.
When the embalming is complete, the deceased is dressed in their clothing and placed into a casket for formal viewing.
Though this process may sound upsetting, remember that licensed embalmers are specially trained professionals who know how to care for your loved one throughout the procedure respectfully. It is conducted with discretion and the utmost dignity behind closed doors. The result creates a more peaceful, lifelike appearance for public viewing.
Reasons for Embalming
There are three main reasons a family may choose embalming for their loved one:
Preservation for Viewing
One of the most common reasons is the desire to preserve the body to allow for one last open-casket public viewing opportunity. This viewing may occur several days or even weeks after the actual passing, as family members from distant locations travel to pay respects and collectively grieve.
Without embalming or restorative preparation, natural post-mortem changes would render the body unsuitable for public display in relatively short order. Facial features sink as fluids redistribute, skin becomes discolored, and decay rapidly sets in. It can be incredibly traumatic to witness. Appropriate embalming preserves an acceptable lifelike appearance that brings more peaceful closure.
Allowing Time for Travel
Similarly, embalming the deceased can alleviate the heartbreaking time pressures that compound grief. Family members need reasonable time to be notified, process the news, make travel plans, and emotionally prepare to say goodbye. Making hasty arrangements due to body decomposition constraints can add even more distress. Knowing their loved one’s rest preserved for services later brings relief.
So, embalming allows transport of the deceased if the location of death is distant from the place of formal funeral services or final resting burial. Proper preservation and refrigeration allow for bringing the remains safely to a new destination.
Meeting Legal & Cultural Requirements
In many cultures, embalming is mandated by both religious customs and government health regulations surrounding public viewings, mainly if the body will be transported across state lines or internationally before interment. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions often prescribe embalming if there are plans for an open casket wake and funeral service.
Consult a knowledgeable memorial specialist on relevant legal and cultural protocols when making arrangements.
Overall, embalming can remove decision-making time pressures, all while providing a better opportunity for friends and family to mourn collectively. Making these difficult choices becomes simpler, knowing that your loved one rests comfortably preserved by caring professionals until all can thoughtfully say goodbye.
Alternatives to Traditional Embalming
Suppose the invasive process of vascular embalming does not align with your religious, cultural, or personal preferences. In that case, several options can preserve your loved one for a limited time without invasive chemical treatment:
The most common alternative is refrigeration, when keeping the deceased in climate-controlled cooled chambers typically found in funeral home facilities is possible. The process slows decomposition significantly, preserving the remains for viewing and services if needed within a few weeks. However, very long-term preservation still needs to be improved.
Dry ice, or solid carbon dioxide, can be strategically packed around the body like wet ice but without leaving water-melt residue. The ultracool temperature provides temporary short-term cooling and preservation for a limited wake or brief viewing arrangement. Someone should regularly replenish the dry ice. This alternative is most suitable for 1-3 days.
Natural or Green Burial
With the growing popularity of eco-conscious memorial options, more families are choosing natural or green burials that do not use chemical embalming. The emphasis is placed on rapid natural burial, allowing the body to quickly decompose and return to the earth undisturbed in a natural state. Any public gatherings happen without the body present.
With Better Place Forests, you can plan to have a memorial tree amidst a lush green jungle for your deceased right at the burial spot. Our guides can help you find one that resonates with your loved one’s personality, nature, and last wishes, if any.
Choosing embalming or alternative preservation depends greatly on religious and cultural traditions and family preferences. Be sure to consult your funeral home on all options available so they can best guide you through appropriate commemorative arrangements in line with your wishes.
Health and Environmental Considerations
Some essential considerations around embalming include using chemicals and their environmental impact. The standard embalming fluid contains a mixture of formaldehyde, methanol, and other solvents, which preserve tissues but can irritate eyes and lungs. With increasing demand for green burials, more families are avoiding chemical treatments.
Formaldehyde specifically helps prevent decay but is labeled a human carcinogen when inhaled, as studies on industry workers showed links to cancers. Most exposure comes from direct inhalation when working with these chemicals daily. But for the general public, limited exposure from viewing is considered a negligible risk as formaldehyde levels off-gas and degrades rapidly. Air quality monitoring at funeral homes ensures safe long-term exposure limits are upheld.
As for environmental impact, efforts in recent years ensure safer containment protocols are followed for disposal after embalming. Chemicals are captured and neutralized rather than entering groundwater. Many “green” funeral homes use significantly lower-toxicity chemicals compared to the past. Still, avoiding embalming eliminates this impact.
While embalming provides preservation between the end of life and services, alternatives like rapid refrigeration or dry ice cooling avoid chemicals. Personal views balancing religious needs and environmental impact play a significant role. Your memorial specialist can advise how to thoughtfully commemorate your loved one in a fitting, meaningful way. Most importantly, take time to grieve, share supportive moments with family, and honor your memories.
What happens when a body is embalmed?
In the process, blood and internal fluids are removed from the deceased and replaced with a chemical mixture of embalming fluid to slow organic decomposition. It temporarily preserves and restores lifelike appearance, allowing for transportation and viewing if desired.
Licensed mortuary professionals carefully follow health procedures of washing, arterially injecting, and topically applying specially formulated embalming chemicals. It is done respectfully behind closed doors, resulting in more peaceful repose.
Is the brain removed during embalming?
The brain remains intact within the skull cavity during a standard embalming procedure. However, there might be a need to remove the chest and abdominal organs only.
How long can an embalmed body last before a funeral?
Upon embalming a body correctly, you can preserve it for 1 to 3+ weeks before signs of decomposition. If alternatives like refrigeration are opted for, you can hold your loved one for 1-3 weeks while maintaining climate control factors. Long-term preservation is difficult.