Do You Have to Be Embalmed in Order to Be Buried or Cremated?

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It’s no secret that one of the most expensive parts of a traditional funeral is embalming a body. If you can remove this expense, you’ll immediately save anywhere from $500 to $1,000. When should a body be embalmed? Do you have to be embalmed?

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Embalming depends on the type of funeral and end-of-life plans you or your loved one decide. Certain processes do not require embalming, whereas others make the process a necessity. Here’s what you can expect and when it’s required.

Do You Have to Be Embalmed to Show Your Body at a Viewing?

The answer to this question can go a few different ways. Legal guidelines direct the burial process in addition to individual mortuary guidelines. These guidelines can vary from state to state — it’s always best to inquire with your local state or county for up-to-date requirements for viewings and burial.

Do you have to be embalmed legally?

Embalming means a funeral home temporarily preserves a deceased person’s body and makes this person look as lifelike as possible. Embalming helps make the deceased look like he or she is sleeping and erases many of the unpleasant signs of death.

Legally, each state differs in its requirements regarding burials that take place beyond a 24-hour time limit after a person’s death. A person’s body must be preserved but you have the option to choose refrigeration instead of embalming if desired. 

All funeral homes provide options for services without embalming, though some might require embalming for viewings. If you’re uncomfortable with the embalming process or you’re trying to save on the cost of embalming, deciding against the process is within your rights as long as refrigeration is available and the funeral home can provide needed arrangements.

When do morticians suggest embalming?

Morticians will suggest embalming if you are planning a funeral with a viewing prior to or during the funeral. Open-casket funerals and day-long viewings share a last view of the deceased with friends and loved ones. 

Depending on how long the individual has been deceased or the manner of death, embalming might help to present a better final view of the deceased person. Embalming is often suggested in order to preserve natural skin tone, rosy cheeks, and overall better appearance during the viewing.

When is it best to be embalmed?

If you need to wait days or weeks for a funeral to take place, embalming will help preserve the body until you can hold the funeral. While there is no legal limit to how long you can delay a funeral, bodily preservation of the deceased is required. Your two options for preservation are refrigeration or embalming. While refrigeration is good enough, it might cost you more, in the long run, to refrigerate a body instead of embalming right away.

Depending on how long you need to wait for the funeral, you may not be able to bury your loved one. After a certain amount of time, some states will require you to cremate the deceased after the viewing. Each state is different, however, so it’s best to talk with the funeral home that helps you with final preparations to get up to date and state-by-state legal guidance.

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Do You Have to Be Embalmed in Order to Be Cremated?

When choosing to cremate yourself or a loved one, it’s important to understand when embalming might be suggested or required.

When is embalming suggested?

If you’re cremating within several days of a person’s death, embalming is not required. In fact, embalming is never required as long as the body is properly preserved with refrigeration. If the body must wait to be cremated and refrigeration is not available, however, embalming is required by most states. Embalming might also be suggested to save on money as opposed to paying for refrigeration until cremation can take place.

When is embalming required?

Though time periods differ from state to state, if you must wait more than several days to cremate and there is no refrigeration available, you must embalm. By law, families must wait anywhere from 24 to 48 hours to cremate someone. During this time, the body must be preserved. Most of the time, refrigeration is available, but if not, embalming becomes necessary.

When is embalming optional?

If you are planning to have a viewing for your loved one before cremation, embalming is often suggested and, depending on the state and funeral home, sometimes required. As long as the person is properly preserved prior to and directly after the viewing, embalming is typically optional.

When is embalming unnecessary?

Should you plan to have a direct cremation, embalming is completely unnecessary. Direct cremation occurs when the deceased is cremated immediately following death. No viewing, memorial, or funeral is held with the body present. 

Do You Have to Be Embalmed in Order to Be Buried?

The biggest misconception when it comes to embalming is when loved ones plan to traditionally bury their loved ones. Many people think that when a person is buried traditionally, they are required to embalm. This is not the case.

When do you need to embalm for burial?

One of the only reasons for embalming before burial is if the body must wait for a period beyond 24 to 48 hours for burial and there is no refrigeration option. Legally, all bodies must be preserved prior to burial. The options for preservation include refrigeration, so if you object to embalming for personal or religious reasons, you have an alternate option for preservation. If, however, refrigeration is unavailable, embalming is required.

When is embalming optional?

Many families choose to embalm their loved ones before burial to preserve their appearance. Many appreciate the thought that their family members will look more like themselves during the funeral and they will be preserved over a longer period after their burial. It’s up to each individual family and each person’s end-of-life wishes.

When is embalming unnecessary?

Embalming is never required in a direct burial. Direct burials typically occur within 24 hours of a person’s death and they are kept refrigerated at the morgue until their transportation to the funeral home for burial.

If you opt to have a funeral and burial at a green cemetery, embalming is not only unnecessary but not allowed. Green burials keep the burial process as eco-friendly as possible and these cemeteries will not allow burial if a person has been embalmed. Green cemeteries focus on preserving the environment, aiding the natural decomposition of a person’s body, and preventing embalming fluid from leaching into the ground and water table. 

What Happens if You Don’t Want to Be Embalmed?

If you don’t want to be embalmed, you still have plenty of options when it comes to cremation and burial services. Embalming is rarely required except in the cases noted above. Here are several options you have if you choose not to embalm.

Direct burial

A direct burial occurs within 24 hours to a few days after a person dies. The person is transported directly from the morgue to the funeral home and is buried. Direct burials are standalone and come with no memorial service, viewing, or funeral where the person’s body is present. A memorial may occur at a later date after the burial if the family chooses.

Direct cremation

Similar to direct funerals, direct cremation occurs when a person’s body is transferred directly to the crematory for the cremation process. This occurs anywhere from hours to a few days after a person’s death. There is no funeral, memorial, or viewing service with the body present.

Burial with a private viewing

Many funeral homes are happy to work with family members who do not want to embalm before burial. Several religions, including Judaism, Islam, and the Baha’i faith, view embalming as a desecration of the body.

For those who object to embalming, funeral homes will provide an option of a private viewing for family and friends prior to the funeral service. Bodies will be preserved with refrigeration before the viewing and, during the viewing, they will be kept in a cold room to slow the decomposition process.

Cremation with a private viewing

If a family wants to cremate their loved one and still have a viewing, some mortuaries will offer a private viewing for family and friends. Offerings for this service vary from state to state and on an individual mortuary basis. You may need to hunt to find a mortuary that offers a viewing if it doesn’t offer crematory services as well. 

Honoring Personal Convictions 

Though embalming is widely popular in America, many families opt out of the process to save on funeral expenses or due to religious reasons. As long as a person is properly preserved, it is within each family’s rights to decide how best to bury the remains of loved ones. The ability to abide by personal and religious convictions for end-of-life arrangements is a right guaranteed by law.


Sources:
  1. Keene, Valorie. “Burial and Cremation Laws in California.” Cremation Laws, NOLO, 2021. nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/burial-cremation-laws-california.html#3
  2. Park-Mustacchio, Jenn. “A Day’s Work.” Death and Dying, The Guardian, 24 October 2013. theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/oct/24/embalmer-for-14-years-ask-me-anything
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