The practice of embalming has existed since early history throughout many lands and cultures. In the United States, the vast majority of bodies are embalmed, yet few people understand how and why we embalm our dead.
Purpose of Embalming
Embalming disinfects, temporarily preserves and restores, to an acceptable physical appearance, a dead human body. As human remains begin to decompose almost immediately after death, thereby offering an ideal environment for microbial growth, untreated remains pose a public health concern.
While embalming sanitizes the body, it also retards decomposition, thereby temporarily preserving the body. In view of America’s highly mobile society, embalming permits friends and family to travel great distances, often several days after a death, to attend the funeral ceremony and allows the body to be buried at some place other than where death occurred.
Additionally, embalming restores the body to an acceptable physical appearance for viewing following a traumatic death or devastating illness. Many bereavement experts agree that viewing the deceased confirms the reality of death and helps survivors take an important step toward recovering from their loss.
Certain religious beliefs may prohibit embalming or place restrictions on its practice. Consult your clergyperson or funeral director if you have questions or concerns about embalming and your religious beliefs.
The Embalming Process
The embalming process begins with the thorough washing and disinfection of the body. The mouth, nose and other openings are sanitized and closed to prevent excretions which could be a source of disease or infection. Embalming chemicals are then injected into the body through one or more accessible arteries, while body fluids are drained through corresponding veins.
Embalming chemicals kill bacteria and temporarily preserve the body by altering the physical structure of the body’s proteins. A latticework of inert, firm protein is created that can no longer serve as a host for bacteria or be acted upon by enzymes. Thus the decomposition process is retarded and the body is sanitized and temporarily preserved.
Embalming is not routinely required by law, but may be necessary if death is due to certain diseases; if final disposition is not made within a prescribed period of time; if refrigeration or immediate burial is not available; or if a body is to be transported between states or internationally in a common carrier.
Some states require embalming for transportation within the state, beyond the place where death occurred. Funeral directors may require embalming if the funeral ceremony selected by a family includes viewing and are generally required to ask permission of the deceased’s next-of-kin verbally or in writing before embalming.
Ask your funeral director to explain any specific laws, policies or circumstances that will influence your decisions regarding embalming.
National Funeral Directors Association