Embalming is a common practice in quite a few cultures and societies. It’s considered customary in the U.S. and Canada. While there are religious and preferential reasons for embalming, it’s also used for medical purposes. And depending on the intention and the methods used, how long embalming lasts can vary.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- How Long Does Embalming Last Before Burial or Cremation?
- How Long Does a Body Last Without Embalming?
- What Happens to a Body in a Casket After It’s Buried and Embalmed?
If you’re wondering, “What is embalming?” or “Why is it done?” we’ll cover that below. We’ll also tackle the central question of how long embalming is supposed to last.
How Long Does Embalming Last Before Burial or Cremation?
If you’re considering having a loved one embalmed, there are some things to know about the process before burial or cremation.
Embalming prior to a traditional funeral and burial can be slightly more involved than embalming prior to cremation, especially if you’re planning to have a viewing or an open-casket funeral. Of course, there are also closed casket funerals.
You can weigh your options and decide whether a closed or open casket funeral works best in your situation. That decision will impact how long any embalming treatments last.
Embalming before a burial
Embalming a body prior to burial preserves the body and delays natural decomposition. Depending on the strength, concentration, and methods used, the embalming state may last anywhere from a few days to a week or so. That’s not a huge length of time.
However, a few days is typically enough time for a family to make arrangements and prepare for a viewing, if applicable. If a body is going to be viewed, funeral and embalming professionals will spend more time making the person look lifelike and peaceful.
They achieve this using a reference photo provided by the family, as well as makeup and potentially prosthetics. For example, caps are placed under a person’s eyelids, and a mouthpiece is placed in their mouth. If a person suffered from injuries or an accident, more work must be done to reconstruct their appearance. You can learn more about the entire embalming process, here.
The purpose of open-casket funerals or viewings is to put the deceased person’s loved ones at peace. Many people find a viewing helpful in this respect, especially if the person died suddenly or tragically.
Even though embalming is meant to preserve the body, embalming chemicals and processes aren’t permanent, and the body still decays after burial. Even the mummification practices used by ancient Egyptians couldn’t completely stave off the natural processes of decomposition.
Embalming before cremation
Unlike embalming before a traditional funeral and burial, the embalming process before cremation may be less intense. This is one of the factors to consider if you’re deciding between cremation and burial. Still, it’s not uncommon to have a viewing before cremation.
In this case, the process is very similar to what we described above. The funeral and embalming professionals do their part to make your loved one look lifelike and at peace.
Many cremations, on the other hand, don’t include a viewing or even embalming beforehand. For example, some religions and cultures don’t believe in viewings. Instead, cremation occurs almost immediately after death.
If you’re planning to have your loved one (or yourself) cremated within a short period of time, there really isn’t a need for embalming to occur.
How Long Does a Body Last Without Embalming?
The embalming process could be described as “intense.” But as we mentioned prior, it’s considered customary in many places. Embalming became popular in the U.S., in particular, during the Civil War so soldiers’ bodies could be returned home with less decomposition.
Embalming involves heavy chemicals, including formaldehyde, which is considered bad for the environment and even dangerous to health professionals and those with prolonged exposure to it.
But embalming is not without its benefits. Embalming allows for the preservation of bodies for open-casket funerals, as well as medical research and long-distance transportation.
As mentioned, even embalmed bodies are not spared from natural decomposition, which begins a few days to a week after embalming. For medical purposes and extenuating reasons, bodies can be kept for six months to two years.
Bodies that are not embalmed, on the other hand, begin decomposing almost immediately. Decomposition occurs much more quickly in humid or warm environments than dry or cold ones.
The first thing that begins to occur to a body is a phenomenon called rigor mortis, where the body becomes stiff and inflexible. This process is combatted by embalming professionals by massaging the body, applying a cream to keep the skin soft and pliable, as well as removing fluids.
The entire embalming process is certainly complex to a novice, but for professionals, it only takes about an hour or two. If a body has to be prepped and beautified for a viewing, this can take longer.
How long can you delay a funeral or embalming?
You may also be wondering how long you can delay a funeral prior to embalming or without embalming. There are tons of personal, logistical, or even legal reasons that a funeral may need to be delayed. However, none of them eliminate the need to preserve the body for reasons related to both safety and dignity.
Therefore, as soon as a person dies, official paperwork begins and the next important steps, depending on the circumstances of their death, occur. For example, if the person is an organ donor, medical professionals will quickly get to work on evaluating and harvesting their viable organs.
On the other hand, if a person died under suspicious or unknown circumstances, an autopsy will begin.
No matter what the next step is after a person dies in terms of funeral proceedings or otherwise, the body must be refrigerated or embalmed. Refrigeration and embalming are essential to keeping medical professionals and others in this field safe, as well as limiting the spread of any infections or hazards, in some cases.
What Happens to a Body in a Casket After It’s Buried and Embalmed?
After a body is buried and embalmed, preservation of the body may last for a few days to a week. Depending on the humidity, climate, and soil contents, however, the decomposition process may be more rapid.
Even the most heavy-duty caskets do not protect against decomposition and the elements. The body will continue to decay over time. “Preventing” this process can only be accomplished by opting for cremation instead.
Furthermore, it’s considered more eco-conscious to allow the decomposition process to occur naturally (preferably, without the use of embalming chemicals). You can read more about green burial options here.
As we briefly mentioned, it’s an unfortunate truth that embalming chemicals like formaldehyde are carcinogenic or cancer-causing.
Though morticians and other professionals are the ones coming in direct contact with embalming fluid on a regular basis, bodies that have been embalmed can also seep this fluid into the surrounding soil after they’re buried. Formaldehyde can remain in the surrounding atmosphere for almost a year.
This information isn’t intended to persuade you to change your funeral plans. After all, it’s important to respect tradition and cultural practices, and embalming may very well be important to you and your family.
But be aware that there are plenty of alternatives worth looking into that may be safer for the environment and funeral professionals. You can learn more about the best burial alternatives here.
Embalming Is a Temporary Part of Death
Embalming is only meant to preserve the body for funeral proceedings and viewings; it isn’t permanent. It can be beneficial to researchers and medical professionals, too, but not without some consequences.
In the grand scheme, the choice to embalm your loved one plays little to no role in how you choose to remember them. Seeing him or her looking at peace one last time may be very therapeutic for you and your family, or it might not be.
This can be achieved, too, by sharing your thoughts and feelings after losing a loved one. Let yourself grieve, and understand that this process looks different for everyone. What’s more, death may affect you differently each time you’re faced with it.
For tackling other questions surrounding funerals, death, and life, be sure to check out the rest of Cake’s resources. You can also set up a free end-of-life planning profile for yourself or a loved one.