Myth: You must embalm the body


If there is any decision people are more likely to delegate to the funeral director, or make no decision at all (only to find that the choice to proceed was assumed) it is embalming. This practice of preserving and presenting the body is carried out in America more than almost any other nation. It’s not an inexpensive decision – it can cost anywhere from $300 to $800, sometimes more. Next to purchasing the coffin and the funeral home fees, embalming is one of the bigger expenses when arranging a funeral. . Discuss this matter openly with your funeral director and make a well informed and conscious decision.

So, what is embalming?

Embalming delays decomposition of the body through the use of chemicals and is carried out by a licensed practitioner at the funeral home. Unless there is referral to the medical examiner, or the deceased was an organ donor, the organs are not removed. Blood is removed and replaced with embalming fluid which contains formaldehyde and other chemicals. Decomposition can take several years depending on the environment.

A short history lesson . .

During the civil war the bodies of 1000’s of soldiers were embalmed enabling them to be returned home instead of being buried where they fell on the battlefield. The preserve of the wealthy, this rudimentary practice used chemicals (principally arsenic) to delay decomposition so soldiers bodies could make the long journey home.  Some years later following his assassination, president Abraham Lincoln was embalmed allowing his body to proceed in a funeral train across several states. Thereafter it soon became accepted practice carried out by an undertaker who was specifically trained in the task.

What happens with presentation of the deceased?

During embalming the body is often prepared for viewing. This involves the use of skin dies, sutures, eye caps, and in the case of hair loss due to illness may include a wig. Facial features will be set in a natural appearance and photos are often used as a guide by the embalmer. Makeup may also be applied as appropriate. It is a skilled and considered process, one that the involves great care. There was popular belief that seeing the deceased looking “life like” helped with the grieving process. Recent commentary suggests it’s not necessarily as beneficial as once thought to see our love one so perfectly restored. If illness had taken it’s toll, seeing the deceased “as they once were” might do more to hinder than help the acceptance of death.

What are the alternatives to embalming?

  • Portable air conditioners in the room work extremely well.
  • Use ice packs, or chill hot water bottles in the freezer. Pack around the body and rotate often.
  • Place a towel around the hips, or use an adult diaper.
  • If the family are supported by a doula, palliative carer or other professional, they will assist.

Sorting Fact From Fiction

  • There is no hygiene reason for embalming. A dead body is not unsanitary.
  • With the exception of ebola, it is not possible to catch a disease from a dead body.
  • If the body will be away from a chilled environment for more than 6 hours and will be transported across state lines then it must be embalmed.
  • If there is a public viewing, and the body is away from a chilled environment for more than 6 hours then it must be embalmed.
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