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The Embalming Process: How it Works

Getty Images / DesignPics / Leah Warkentin

A step-by-step breakdown and frequently asked questions

Embalming is a process performed by licensed funeral professionals that slows the decomposition of a body after death by adding chemicals to replace bodily fluids. It's typically chosen by families that wish to have an open-casket funeral.

Jump To: Frequently Asked Questions about the Embalming Process


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If you've ever wondered what happens in the embalming process, read on for more information and for answers to frequently asked questions. Please note that this article includes explicit details.

Preparing the Body for Embalming

If a family has chosen embalming for their loved one, the first step after the body has been transported to the funeral home is that all clothing is removed, as well as any bandages, IV needles, or other external medical paraphernalia. The body is then washed with disinfectant. 

Rigor mortis has most likely set in, so the limbs are massaged and the joints worked so they are movable. Facial stubble is shaved — often including "peach fuzz" that may be on the faces of women and children. Any beard and/or mustache that the deceased wore in life will not be removed.

Setting the Facial Features

Next the eyes are closed, either using glue or small plastic "eye caps" that sit under the eyelid. The jaw is wired or sewn shut. The mouth can be arranged into the desired expression after the jaw has been secured.

After these preliminary steps are done, the actual embalming begins. Embalming can only be done by a licensed professional. There are two steps to this process: arterial embalming and cavity embalming. The first replaces the body's blood with embalming fluid, and the second replaces the fluids in the organs with embalming fluid. This prevents decay as well as eliminating the possibility of fluids leaking out of the body before burial.

Arterial Embalming

Arterial embalming is begun by injecting embalming fluid into an artery while blood is drained via a vein. Typically about two gallons of embalming fluid — consisting of formaldehyde or other chemicals, mixed with water — is needed for arterial embalming. The blood is generally disposed of via the sewer system. This step is complete once all blood has been replaced with embalming fluid.

Cavity Embalming

Cavity embalming follows arterial embalming. This process only takes place when a body was not autopsied. Cavity embalming begins as the embalmer uses a device called a trocar (basically, a hollow tube with a point on one end and a seal on the other) to puncture the stomach, bladder, large intestines, lungs, and other hollow organs. Suction is then used to aspirate out the fluid and gas that has collected in the organs.

The embalmer then pumps embalming fluid into the torso, where it will fill empty spaces including those created by suctioning the fluid and gas from the organs. The embalming fluid used for cavity embalming is stronger than that used for arterial embalming.  Ideally, both the aspiration and addition of embalming fluid are done through small punctures in the torso, which can then be sealed with a small plastic cap called a trocar button. The vagina and anus might also be sealed with cotton to prevent fluid leaking.

When an Autopsy Occurs

In the case of an autopsy, cavity embalming typically isn't necessary. The pathologist removes the internal organs in order to inspect them. They may then be incinerated, or they may be preserved with chemicals similar to embalming fluid. 

If the organs were preserved by the pathologist, they might be returned to the body, with the exception of any organs that the pathologist needs to retain for later examination. The organs will be placed in plastic bags before being placed back in the body, which is then sewn closed. Since the organs were preserved and placed in plastic, no additional cavity embalming is needed. 

Another option after autopsy is that the organs are placed in a plastic bag that's kept with the body, though not in the body cavity. They might be placed at the foot of the casket. If the organs have been incinerated or retained outside the body, the body might be sewn closed with cotton batting inside.

After both steps of the embalming process are complete, the body will be washed again, then dressed in the clothes it will be buried in. It's then placed in the casket and prepared for viewing and burial.
 

 

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT EMBALMING 
 

Is embalming required by law?

There's no federal law regarding embalming, and state laws only exist in a few cases when a body will be transported across state lines. There may also be local regulations requiring a body to be embalmed if it's not buried within a certain period after death. 

Is there a health risk involved with not embalming a body?

No, there is generally no public health risk involved with not embalming a body, as verified by the Centers for Disease Control. 

If a body is going to be viewed at an open-casket funeral, does it need to be embalmed?

No. If a family wants to have a viewing but not have the body embalmed, it can be preserved with ice packs and refrigeration. Not all funeral homes will accommodate this method, so you may need to do your research to find the right funeral home if this is your preference.

Are there other alternatives to embalming beyond refrigeration?

If you prefer not to have your loved one's body embalmed, you can choose direct cremation or direct burial, in which the body is buried without any viewing or service. You can still opt to have a memorial service without the body present. 

How much does embalming cost?

Embalming in the U.S. generally costs about $500-$700, though this can vary based on location and other factors. This fee is in addition to any other funeral expenses.

Does my religion allow embalming?

There are a few religions that prohibit embalming, notably Islam, Orthodox Judaism, and Baha'i. It's generally permitted by other religions, though it's best to ask your religious leader for their views if you want to be absolutely sure.

Are embalming chemicals safe?

Formaldehyde is the most commonly used embalming fluid, and it is both highly toxic and a known human carcinogen. Embalmers are required by OSHA to wear a respirator and full-body covering while working. 

Is there an environmental impact from embalming?

When an embalmed body is buried, the toxic formaldehyde in the embalming fluid can seep into the ground and affect the soil and water. The chemical can bond with moisture in the atmosphere and find its way into rain and snow. In the U.S. alone, more than five million gallons of embalming fluid are used each year.

If a body is being cremated, should it be embalmed?

If there will be a viewing before the cremation, you might choose embalming if you wish to preserve the body's appearance. However, there's no specific need to embalm a body before cremation. Note that when an embalmed body is cremated, the formaldehyde enters the atmosphere and can remain there for months.

Does embalming preserve the body forever?

Embalming delays the decomposition process, but the body will still eventually decay.

Is embalming the standard around the world?

Embalming is most common in the U.S. and Canada, and less so elsewhere. 


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