We have all heard about embalming, but do you really know what the process entails? Embalming today has become a very common practice in the West. Even people who are cremated will often be embalmed if there is an open casket memorial beforehand. When we hear embalming mentioned, most of us are probably initially grossed out, imagining strange contraptions, dead bodies, and who knows what else. It's important to know more about this process, its history, whether or not it's necessary, and how it may effect the environment, in order to know if it is something you would want for yourself or for you loved one.
What is Embalming?
Embalming is the process of preserving human remains by treating them with chemicals to temporarily stop decomposition. Typically, the reasons for preserving a corpse is to keep the body presentable for public display at a funeral, or for medical and scientific purposes, such the study of human anatomy. There are three overall goals when it comes to embalming: sanitization, presentation, and preservation. Embalming is usually conducted by a professional specifically trained in these processes. While funeral directors may act as embalmers as well, the embalmer is usually a separate person, focusing exclusively on the task of preserving and preparing the body. In order to become an embalmer in many jurisdictions, one has to be formally trained in anatomy, thanatology (the study of death), chemistry, and embalming theory. They must also have received practical, first-hand instruction in a mortuary before receiving their qualifications. Needless to say, they need to know a lot before they can work formally as an embalmer.
Embalming is a process that has been practiced all over the world, in different ways throughout much of history. One of the most famous, early examples of embalming took place in Egypt. As early as the First Dynasty (3200 BC), specialized priests were in charge of embalming and mummification. These processes involved removing organs, drying the body, and covering it in a chemical compound called natron. The Ancient Egyptians believed that this process of preservation was necessary for the dead to pass on into the afterlife.
In Europe, embalming didn't become a common practice until the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when developments in the realms of science and medicine began to influence death care practices, and bodies were needed for dissection and study. The use of chemical injections to preserve bodies was first made possible in the 17th century by William Harvey, an English physician who was the first to study the circulatory system in detail. The Scottish surgeon William Hunter was the first to apply this knowledge to embalming techniques, writing a report on the appropriate methods for embalming in order to preserve bodies for burial.
In the United States, it wasn't until the Civil War era that embalming became widespread. Indeed, demand for embalming grew during this period, mostly for sentimental and practical reasons. The families of soldiers who died in battle in far-off locations wanted to see their loved ones and have the chance to display their body for others to pay their respects. Embalming helped to ensure that bodies wouldn't decompose on their way home from the battlefield. Another motive behind embalming at this time was to prevent the spread of disease, while allowing time to properly prepare the body for burial (the belief that dead bodies can spread disease was later debunked by science).
Until the early 20th century, arsenic was usually used as an embalming fluid, until it was discovered that less toxic chemicals could be used. In 1867, the German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann discovered formaldehyde and its power to preserve. This discovery eventually spurred formaldehyde's use as the foundational chemical for modern methods of embalming.
Embalming today in the West involves a number of key steps. First, the deceased is placed on the mortuary table with the head elevated by a head block. The embalmer then confirms that the deceased is dead by checking for signs of death, such as lividity, clouded corneas, and rigor mortis. The body is then thoroughly washed using disinfectant and germicidal solutions. During this part of the process, the embalmer relieves rigor mortis by moving the deceased's limbs and massaging their muscles. The eyes are kept shut using small caps placed on the eyes below the eyelids. The mouth may also have to be kept shut using a suture. These steps (called "setting the features") are important, and are done to make the deceased look as natural and relaxed as possible (and also so that the mouth and eyes don't open). A photograph of the deceased is typically used as a reference point during this process.
There are four key steps during the actual embalming process. The first step is called arterial embalming. This involves the injection of embalming chemicals into the blood vessels. Blood and other fluids are displaced by this injection and are expelled from the right jugular vein. This process and the fluids that are displaced are collectively referred to as "drainage".
The second step is called cavity embalming, which refers to the replacement of the body's internal fluids with embalming chemicals. During this part of the process, the embalmer makes a small incision just above the navel and pushes a surgical instrument called a trocar into the chest and stomach cavities. This punctures the hollow organs, and allows their liquid contents to be drained. These cavities are then filled with chemicals that contain formaldehyde.
The third step is called hypodermic embalming. This is a supplemental method that is used as needed, depending on the individual body. A needle is used to treat areas where preserving fluid was not successfully distributed in the body during the main arterial injection.
The fourth and final step is called surface embalming. This is another supplemental method, conducted as needed, that uses embalming chemicals to preserve and restore areas directly on the skin's surface. This method is usually more necessary if there is excessive skin damage - usually from an accident, illness, or decomposition.
The embalming process in its entirety is only meant to temporarily preserve the body. Regardless of whether or not embalming takes place, the body of the deceased will eventually decompose. Because of this, embalming of this type is intended only to prepare bodies for funeral services, or to allow for bodies to be transported long distances for burial.
What are the Costs of Embalming?
Embalming has become common practice in North America, with many people assuming that they have to be embalmed after death. However that is not the case. Some jurisdictions do require embalming if the body will be displayed in an open casket, however none go so far as to always require it, regardless of circumstance. The Jewish and Muslim traditions both consider embalming to be taboo since bodies are supposed to return to the earth 'pure'.
Embalming is also environmentally costly. As this infographic shows, over 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde are buried in the ground each year, enough to fill 1.2 Olympic sized swimming pools. Formaldehyde is a highly toxic and flammable chemical, that has actually been classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a "probable human carcinogen." The health risk of someone viewing a body during a service where the body has been embalmed is very low. There is however a consensus that embalmers are putting their health at risk by being exposed to formaldehyde's fumes.
While embalming has become common practice in the Western world, it is a misconception that it is always necessary. People will opt out of embalming for religious reasons, environmental reasons or cost. In cases where embalming is necessary or desired, the costs range anywhere from $500-$1300 and typically cover the process itself, dressing, and cosmetology. While embalming clearly has a long history, the process as we know it today is relatively new.
Do you have questions about embalming? leave them in the comments below!