Embalming is the practice of preserving a deceased’s body from decay. Over time the reason for doing so has changed. Nowadays it is most commonly used if there will be an open-casket viewing of the deceased. The term itself means to cover with a balm, this makes sense as historically the body would have been treated with spices and oils. In this article, we will answer some of the most asked questions about the process as done by the funeral industry in the United States. Remember that embalming has a religious and cultural aspect in many cases, we aim to give an overview of modern practice and you should consult you, local faith leader if you have any faith-based question regarding the practice.
What is Embalming?
Embalming is the process of chemically treating the deceased human body to reduce the presence and growth of microorganisms, delay organic decomposition, and restore an acceptable physical appearance.
It is only necessary if there will be viewing, if the remains will be transported over a long distance, or if it is required by law. Direct cremation and immediate burial do not typically require embalming. This process is done by either an embalmer or a funeral director and is commonly done at the funeral home responsible for the funeral.
How Does Embalming Work?
There are generally three main goals, which are the sanitization of the body, making the body presentable/ more lifelike, and preservation of the body. First, the embalmer must get permission from the family (see below). They will then perform an initial evaluation of the body’s donation, for such thins as a skin condition, edema, rigor mortis, and other conditions that may affect the procedure.
Embalming is a surgical procedure that is minimally invasive. First, the body is washed with germicidal soup. The actual process is typically made up of four parts:
- Arterial. which is where the embalmer injects the embalming solution into the arteries of the deceased.
- Cavity Embalming and Treatment. The embalmer will remove internal liquids and cavity fluid from the body cavity and chest cavity. This is done via a small incision above the navel.
- Hypodermic. This is when embalming liquid is injected into specific places on the body. This may be done if the arterial preparation liquid fails to travel to specific places.
- Surface. The application of embalming chemicals to the skin’s surface to fix areas of damage from accident, skin donations, et cetera.
Depending on if the family will be having an open-casket viewing or not, the embalmer may position the face to give the impression of someone resting. This can be down with small apparatus specialized for this purpose, moisturizers, as well as makeup. The cosmetic function is usually considered different and independent from the embalming process itself.
What is Embalming Fluid?
Modern embalming fluid is typically a mixture of formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, methanol, humectants and wetting agents, and other solvents. Typically the formaldehyde and methanol make up the bulk of the ingredients. Some eco-friendly (see below) options have become available that forgo the formaldehyde.
How Long Does the Process Take?
The embalming process can vary in length, but in most cases, it can take about an hour to complete. Cosmetology and dressing the body extend that time to a few hours.
How Long Does it Last?
The length of time an embalmed body will not decay is dependent on the types of chemicals used in the fluid, the amount of fluid used, and the general conditions that the body is kept in. When Abraham Lincoln was exhumed by his family in 1901 his features were easily recognizable even though he had been buried thirty-six years previously.
Who Has the Right to Decide?
The deceased may have outlined whether they wished to be embalmed in a pre-need contract, which would be binding under the law. If there is no pre-need contract or the deceased did not specify, then it is the personal choice of the family and the person who holds the right of disposition under state law (the deceased’s next-of-kin) will have the right to decide.
Is it Required By Law?
Embalming is generally not required by law; however, many states require that a body be embalmed or refrigerated after a certain period of time after death. Some funeral homes may require it for specific funeral arrangements (e.g., open-casket viewings). It is best to ask the funeral director at the funeral arrangement conference if your loved one expressed interest in an open-casket viewing.
How Much Does it Cost?
Using our database of funeral home price lists we found that it can range from $913 in Alaska to $443 in Vermont. The average cost of embalming in the United States is $699.92. However, there is generally a wide range between different funeral homes and different parts of the same state. This charge would be independent of any cosmetic preparation of the body for an open-casket viewing. You can always see an estimated price for embalming by searching funeral homes in your area.
Is it Safe for the Environment?
By some estimates, nearly 5.3 million gallons of embalming fluid are buried with bodies every year in the United States. Formaldehyde, along with the other chemicals in the fluid, is not environmentally friendly. Embalming is becoming rarer, as fewer people are opting for open-casket funerals and environmental options are becoming more prevalent.
Embalming is a practice that has been around for millennia and continues to be important in the funeral process for many individuals. However, its popularity is falling in tandem with traditional burials and its effects on the environment are starting to come into question with a new generation who are reprioritizing different aspects of their lives including how they want their death to impact (or not impact) the world.
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