Embalming is a procedure performed by licensed funeral professionals which slows down the decomposition of the body following death by adding chemicals in place of the bodily fluids.
Funeral homes embalm bodies in order to preserve them for a short while. This ensures that the body will remain in an attractive state for long enough so that family members and friends of the deceased can see their beloved one last time before the burial is finished.
The process of embalming involves the removal of body fluids, which are no longer circulated in the body, and replacing them with a mix of preservation chemicals. After both steps in the embalming process are completed, the body will again be washed, and then dressed in clothes that it will be buried in. Embalming is also necessary if there is an unveiling or a wake where the body will be held for viewing.
Embalming is usually also needed when there is going to be some time between the death occurring and burial or the cremation process taking place. Embalming also extends the period between death and the final disposition, giving the deceased family plenty of time to make arrangements with the funeral home or crematorium.
The process of embalming is done to provide reassurance for families that they want to spend time with the loved one before a funeral, no matter what kind of burial service is chosen. Embalming is required by most funeral homes when visiting the body will be a part of the service.
Funeral Directors and Their Treatment of the Deceased
Most funeral directors will not schedule public viewings with a body that is unmasked and not restored to its appearance. If the family decides that they want to cremate their loved one without a public viewing first, there is no need to embalm their loved one. If a family decides to hold a public viewing or gather together with the body in attendance before the burial or cremation, the funeral home or crematorium may request that embalming take place. Whether a body is embalmed, ultra-embalmed, or un-embalmed, it must be kept cool in between viewings and before the burial or cremation occurs.
If the family wishes to hold viewings but does not want to have the body embalmed, then they may wish to keep the body cold using ice packs and refrigerated storage. If a viewing is going to take place before the cremation, embalming may be an option to consider if the appearance of the body is desired. It is possible to adjust features (close eyes and mouth) and groom a decedent for viewing without embalming.
Note, a family of the deceased can opt to apply cosmetics, style their hair, and wash their body and gown, all without undergoing chemical embalming. If you choose not to embalm the body of a loved one, direct cremation or direct burial may be options, whereby the body is interred without any viewing or funeral services. No law says that the body should be embalmed in the UK, and as mentioned above, this is a personal choice (although we would advise embalming, especially if there is any delay in getting a funeral).
Embalming a Body Preserves It for a While
An embalmed body can take a bit longer to decompose once it is buried, but embalming cannot stop this process from happening indefinitely. In theory, the time required to completely decompose an embalmed body could take years, depending on its environment. Note that formaldehyde is released into the atmosphere during the cremation of an embalmed body, where it may stay for months.
One might think the chemicals and bodily fluids that come with embalming are being disposed of as a biohazard, but this is simply untrue. In the right conditions, the embalming liquids may keep a body preserved indefinitely, but burying, wet, or damp conditions will attract bacteria that will grow and start the decay process. When embalming a body, the funeral director washes the body in a germicidal soap and replaces blood with the embalming fluids, which preserve tissue.
The process of embalming helps delay the breakdown, which allows the family to visit up to the funeral (in the proper conditions, the embalmed body never decays, however, this kind of embalming is seldom done). While nothing prevents a body from gradually decaying over time, embalming a body delays this process. Embalming also allows a body to stay in a mitigated decomposition state, which can allow the family more time, sometimes as much as 12 days, before burial or cremation.
Why Embalming Is Usually Done
This is usually done to allow family and friends to visit the loved one at a funeral chapel before burial. Embalming is the attempted preservation and disinfection of the lost loved one, usually chosen by families who want a funeral or memorial service before the final disposition. Embalming is typically done to better prepare the body for viewings or public and private visits, or for keeping the body preserved for medical purposes. Embalming is replacing body fluids with a preservation solution, sterilizing the body, and making the body suitable for visitation by setting features of the deceased so they are more visually attractive.
If the family has chosen to embalm their loved one, the first step once the body is transported to the funeral home is that any clothes are removed, along with any bandages, IV needles, or other outside medical paraphernalia.
If one has not chosen to embalm, a funeral director may prepare the body of their loved one for viewing before the funeral, following many of the same steps: washing the persons body, setting the person’s features, brushing the person’s hair, and dressing him. If you opt not for embalming, the funeral director will prepare your loved one’s body with care and dignity, but there are circumstances in which they may need to recommend that your loved one not be visited.
It is certainly possible to spend time visiting someone or having the coffin opened during a funeral where the person has not been embalmed. In the case of funeral homes, many will not permit public viewing of the body without first having the body embalmed, but there is no law yet specific to requiring the body to be embalmed and in lifelike conditions to be displayed.
Embalming may result in 120 gallons of funeral debris (fecal matter, blood, and the previous contents of the internal organs), along with chemicals used for preservation. Ambient temperature has a greater impact on the decomposition process than the time elapsed from death, regardless of whether a body has been embalmed.