This is a topic not many people have a lot of experience with until it comes time to plan a funeral for a loved one. Here’s some helpful information on one of the most practiced burial traditions in western culture.
What is embalming?
Embalming is a process of temporary body preservation, typically used in advance of an open-casket viewing, long-distance transportation, or for medical/scientific purposes. Embalming involves draining of the deceased's fluids and the injection of chemical solutions into the arteries, tissues, and organs.
Cosmetic restoration accompanies embalming in most funeral home settings and can involve the application of various devices (explained further below), reconstructive materials, and cosmetic products. Embalming for medical donation primarily focuses on longer-term preservation.
Many families choose embalming to restore a “life-like” appearance to the deceased prior to a public wake/viewing. Such open-casket viewings are customary in certain cultural traditions and some believe that this viewing helps with the grieving process. Seeing the deceased in a peaceful repose may be especially helpful in cases of tragic or unexpected death.
There are also practical reasons for embalming, especially if final disposition (burial or cremation) cannot take place soon after the death. If temporary preservation is necessary and chilling is unavailable, embalming can serve to forestall decomposition. In very rare cases, such as certain infectious diseases, embalming may be required for sanitary reasons.
Why not embalm?
Some choose not to embalm because of religious or cultural reasons. Muslim, Bahá’í and orthodox Jewish faiths prohibit embalming. Many who cremate see embalming as unnecessary. Others choose not to embalm for health and environmental reasons (formaldehyde is toxic to embalmers and the environment). According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, embalming provides no public health benefit and may contribute to the spread of infectious disease and increased risks of cancer amongst morticians. For those who wish not to embalm, natural or eco-friendly burial may be a way to save money and the environment.
Many simply wish to forgo the cost of embalming. Direct or immediate burial, without embalming, must be offered by funeral homes. The body is simply placed in a shroud or casket and buried within a few days, without visitation or service. Cremation also offers this option.
What is the process?
First, the mortician will wash the deceased with disinfectant and massage the body to relieve remaining rigor mortis. A cream is applied to keep the skin soft and pliable. Embalmers will set the features of the deceased, often using a photo provided by the family or friends. Facial features are set by putting eye caps below the eyelids, and a mouth-former in the mouth. The mouth is kept closed with wire or sutures. Glue may be used to seal the eyelids or lips. Facial hair is shaved when necessary. Orifices are plugged to absorb any fluids.
Arterial embalming is begun by injecting embalming fluid (usually a formaldehyde-based solution) into an artery while blood is drained from a nearby vein or from the heart. The blood, which is expelled as the fluid is injected, is then sent down the drain and into the sewer. Chemicals may also be injected by syringe into other areas of the body.
The next stage is called cavity embalming. A trocar—a pointed, metal tube attached to a suction hose—is used to puncture organs. Bodily fluids and gasses are withdrawn as “cavity fluid” is injected into the torso. If necessary, embalming chemicals can be used to restore skin damage due to decomposition, cancer or injury. The embalmer then re-washes and dries the deceased.
Finally, there is cosmetology, dressing, and "casketing" of the body. Any missing facial features are molded from wax, makeup is used on the face and hands, nails are manicured and hair is styled. The deceased is dressed for visitation or funeral service (typically in clothes selected by the family) and placed in the coffin or casket of choice, and fingers are glued together if necessary.,
How long does embalming last?
According to Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death, embalming for funeral purposes can last from a day to a week or so, depending on the chemicals, strength, and methods used as well as ambient temperature and humidity. A stronger embalming solution is used on bodies embalmed for medical donation in order to preserve the bodies from 6 months to 2 years.
Is embalming necessary?
Embalming only became popular in North America after the Civil War when it was used for returning deceased veterans home for local burials. The US and Canada are the only countries where the practice of embalming is so widespread that it is considered routine*
There are no state or federal laws that require embalming. For public viewings held in a funeral home, embalming may be required by the funeral home. Private or home viewing by family members and close friends can occur without embalming in all U.S. states. When a body is shipped across state lines, state law may dictate the use of embalming, although this varies and dry ice and a sealed container can generally be used. Five states—California, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota and New Jersey—require embalming when the body leaves those states by airplane or train.
How much does embalming cost?
Embalming at a funeral home can cost $200-$700, depending on local rates and the size and condition of the body. Embalming a body that has been autopsied or has extensive injuries often costs more than embalming an uninjured and intact body. Typically the embalming fee does not cover the related tasks of washing, dressing, cosmetically preparing the body and placing it in the casket. These charges can add another $95-$400 or more, depending on the local rates and the amount of cosmetic restoration needed, bringing the total cost to $295-$1,100. Embalmers are typically paid by the hour and fees take into consideration the high-risk nature of the work.*
Is embalming toxic?
The deceased may not need to be concerned about toxicity, but morticians (who handle embalming fluid) and the environment (where fluid can seep) aren’t so fortunate.
Approximately 5.3 million gallons of embalming fluid is used each year in the U.S. and the contents range from 5-35% formaldehyde, a known carcinogen in humans and animals. Various National Cancer Institute studies reported an increased risk of death due to cancer in those exposed to formaldehyde in their professions.
When an embalmed body decays, the fluid can seep into the ground and affect surrounding soil and water ecosystems, and if cremated, the formaldehyde enters and remains in the atmosphere for up to 250 days. Formaldehyde is water soluble and when found in the atmosphere, combines with condensation and rains down onto plants, animals and water supplies.
What are some alternatives to embalming?
Refrigeration can easily and inexpensively preserve a body for relatively long amounts of time. Not all funeral homes have refrigeration facilities so it makes sense to confirm in advance. Portable products that keep the body cool and dry to temporarily inhibit decomposition and preserve the body, such as dry ice, Techni-Ice, freezer packs, or refrigeration are effective, affordable, and non-toxic substitutes to embalming. There are also eco-friendly alternatives to formaldehyde embalming fluid, such as Enigma, which is offered at a limited number of funeral homes.
What can I do next?
Whether you are planning for a loved one in the wake of a recent loss or planning ahead for yourself, we hope you can benefit from the wide range of information here on the Cake blog.
If you are exploring options to determine what you’d like for yourself, Cake can help you plan all of your end-of-life decisions and share them with your loved ones to make things easier someday. Create your free plan here.
Jasmine Tanguay, Legacy Facilitator & Funeral Celebrant
Jasmine is a funeral celebrant and life-cycle sustainability strategist, currently crafting a green legacy blueprint course called Completing My Circle. She is the founder of A Sustainable Legacy, working to help folks align their final outcomes with their deepest values and greatest gifts. She advises clients and conducts workshops on a variety of DIY legacy and deathcare topics. Jasmine also curates the website FullCircleLife.org which examines the connected cycles of life and death, and homesteads with her family and livestock in Southeastern MA.
- Carlson, Lisa and Joshua Slocum Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death Upper Access Inc. June 15, 2011.
- CostHelper, Inc. “Embalming Cost.” Jan 17, 2019 https://personalfinance.costhelper.com/embalming.html
- Funeral Consumers Alliance. “Embalming Explained.”
- Funerals 360. “Everything You Want To Know About Embalming…And Even the Things You Don't” April 2016. https://www.funerals360.com/blog/burial/the_truth_about_embalming/