How Does the Modern Embalming Process Work? 4 Steps to Know

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If you’re new to funeral planning, you may ask yourself, “Why are funerals so expensive?” After you visit a few funeral homes and look at the cost breakdown for a variety of products and services, you’ll also see that embalming is rather pricey. 

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This article will describe the steps of the embalming process as delicately as possible. We’ll answer questions you may have always wondered about embalming but were too timid to ask.

Let’s dive in and get an understanding of how the modern embalming process works, from start to finish. 

Embalming Explained

When you embalm, you preserve a corpse from decay, usually by arterial injection of a preservative. The word comes from “balm,” which means “something that has a comforting, soothing, or restorative effect.”

Although earlier cultures attempted to preserve dead bodies through mummification and other means, modern embalming involves practices different from those of the ancient ones. This form of preservation didn’t become accessible to ordinary people in America until the time of the Civil War. 

Modern embalming is not practiced by many other cultures around the world. Some religious groups in America and around the globe do not embalm the dead. Muslim, Bahá’í, and Orthodox Jewish faiths prohibit embalming. Hindus and Buddhists often choose cremation instead of embalming. 

Many Americans want to see their deceased family members look as lifelike as possible. Besides helping families with their grief, some people feel that embalming also shows a reverence for the human body. Christians believe that their bodies will be joined with the souls during the afterlife but there’s no teaching in Christianity that discusses the need for embalming. 

But is the expense needed or not? You may question whether this practice is necessary. After all, embalming adds to the cost of a funeral. 

However, it’s important to know that embalming is a matter of preference. Open casket visitations are common in some communities. People expect to see the deceased before being buried or cremated. Some feel that it’s a part of the grief process. 

Before we address some of the questions you have about embalming, let’s discuss the basic steps in the process. 

ยป MORE: Honor your loved one's memory by taking the right next steps. Here is your free post-loss checklist.

 

Steps in the Embalming Process

All cultures carefully prepare the deceased for burial or cremation. The embalming process is performed by family members in some cultures. Although embalming could be described as a ritual process, now it’s only performed by professionals who have been trained and have the appropriate equipment.

Here are the steps of the embalming process.

1. The body is cleaned and prepped

First, the body is cleaned and prepared for the embalming. The face is given special attention. Cotton is placed in the nose, and a mouth former is placed in the mouth to form a natural position.

The mouth is placed in a natural position and closed. Eye caps are placed under the eyelids and closed. Care is taken so no portion of the face moves when the casket is jarred. 

2. The embalming solution is pumped through an artery

Approximately two gallons of a formaldehyde-based solution is pumped through the body through an artery. As the solution runs through the body, it replaces the deceased’s blood. The blood is removed through an incision, often at the jugular. The corpse begins to harden through this process.

Chemicals are also injected in other areas of the body using a syringe. 

3. The embalming solution is pumped into the cavities 

Gas and body fluids are removed from the stomach, bladder, intestines, and lungs using a suction hose. Those areas are injected with a cavity fluid, which is a more potent mix of the embalming fluid. 

4. Cosmetics are applied and the hair is styled

After the embalming fluids have been injected, the body is cleaned again. As the goal of this process is to make the deceased look as lifelike as possible, cosmetics are often applied to give the skin a healthy-looking glow. A cosmetologist may complete this part of the process. 

Nails are manicured and stray hairs are removed. The hair is styled and the body is dressed in the clothing picked out by the family. Often, the person performing this task will consult photos of the deceased from life to make the body look as similar to that look as possible.

Embalming Process: Frequently Asked Questions

It’s only natural to have questions regarding the embalming process, but many people avoid talking about the subject because they don’t want to make others uncomfortable. Learning about the embalming process as soon as a loved one dies may be especially difficult to hear. 

Here are your answers to the frequently asked questions. 

How long does embalming last? 

The short answer to this question is that it depends.

It’s important to realize that embalming temporarily slows the body’s decomposition. It does not keep decay from occurring forever. 

It’s difficult to say how long embalming preserves the body. It depends upon the strength of the chemicals and the conditions surrounding the body’s final resting place. Increased temperature and humidity causes a body to decompose faster than in a cool, dry environment. 

How long does it take to embalm a body?

While the actual embalming may only take one hour, the body’s preparation for viewing may take longer. Some bodies need quite a bit of repair and cosmetics before they are placed in an open casket for viewing. This additional work may take many hours. 

Are there different types of embalming? 

There are two types of embalming — artery and cavity embalming. 

In artery embalming, chemicals are pumped into the body via an artery. The blood is removed during this process. The chemicals cause the body to become rigid. 

After the artery embalming is completed, the cavity embalming occurs. During this process, the fluids from the body’s cavities are removed and a more potent chemical solution is pumped in its place. 

You may also be interested in learning about extreme embalming. Extreme embalming means going through great lengths to make a person seem as life-like as possible for as long as possible. Some people who embrace extreme embalming have their loved one placed in lifelike positions, like sitting them up to drink a beer or play video games. 

You may have to look for a specialized company if you want to be embalmed in this matter. 

What happens if a body isn’t embalmed?

If the body is not embalmed, it begins the natural process of decomposition. The speed of this process depends on temperature and humidity. 

Some consumers think that embalming is required by law but this is not true. There may be certain circumstances when embalming is required, such as when a body crosses state lines. However, there are no public health-related reasons for a body not to be embalmed. 

Talk with your funeral home director if you wish to have an open-casket visitation without embalming your loved one. Some funeral homes will not agree to this practice and would instead recommend a direct burial or a closed-casket funeral

How Do You Feel About Embalming?

Some people like the idea of preserving the body for as long as possible. Others see it as a waste of resources since it does not keep the body from eventually deteriorating.

Learning more about the process may help you make your own end-of-life decisions. You may also want to learn how cremation works as well.

Once you’ve learned all you can about end-of-life-practices, you may feel it is time to make your own plans. Tell your loved ones whether you want to be buried and whether you want an open or closed casket at your service. Make sure your family knows whether you would like to have your body embalmed. 

Making these decisions before you die is one of the greatest gifts you can give to your family. 


Sources

  1. “Balm.” “Embalming.” Lexico. www.lexico.com/en/definition/balm
  2. “Embalming Explained, Answers to Frequently Asked Questions.” Funeral Consumer Alliance. funerals.org/?consumers=embalming-what-you-should-know/

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