Embalmment is the treatment of a dead body to temporarily preserve and prevent decomposition.  The practice of embalming became popular in the 1800s in order to preserve human bodies for scientific study.  The demand grew in the 19th century as more individuals wanted to be buried in remote locations and families wanted to display the body for viewing purposes.  Embalming became popular in the United States during the Civil War so that deceased soldiers and other officials could be transported home for burial.  Today, the United States and Canada are the only two countries where embalming is considered to be routine and ordinary.

Steps in the Embalming Process

The embalming procedure is invasive and includes injecting chemical solutions into the arteries, tissues, and sometimes even the organs of the deceased.  In addition, fluids are drained from the body in order to slow down the decomposition process and restore the deceased’s physical appearance for cosmetic purposes.  The process typically includes nine steps:

  1. The body is laid out face up on a table.
  2. Vital signs are checked to confirm that the deceased is truly dead by looking for cloudy corneas, rigor mortis, a pulse, and rigidity.
  3. The body is then washed with disinfectant. At the same time, the arms and legs are massaged and flexed in order to relieve rigor mortis.
  4. The embalming fluid is injected into the arteries through a tube, which is connected to the embalming machine. The machine is a centrifugal pump, which copies the beating of a human heart.
  5. The blood from the veins is removed as the embalming fluid is injected.
  6. The blood vessels are tied off and any incisions are stitched closed.
  7. Liquids and gases are removed from the internal body cavity and embalming fluid is added.
  8. The body is washed and dressed.
  9. Cosmetics are applied to restore a natural appearance.

How Long Does Embalming Take?

Typically, the embalming process lasts anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour.  This does not include the final two steps of dressing the body and applying cosmetics.

What is the Cost to have a Body Embalmed?

The price for embalming varies anywhere from $490 to $1295.  There may be additional charges for dressing the body, placing the body in a casket, and applying the cosmetics.

Controversy Surrounding Embalming and its Impact on the Environment

Embalming fluid contents include 5 to 35% formaldehyde and 9 to 56% ethanol.  Formaldehyde is a well-known carcinogen and is considered one of the top 10% most damaging and hazardous chemicals by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Formaldehyde is so toxic that embalmers must wear full-body covering as well as a respirator during the embalming process.

As an embalmed body decays, the fluids seep into the ground affecting the surrounding soil and water systems.  If the body is cremated, the formaldehyde enters the atmosphere, where it remains for up to 250 days.  From there, it combines with the condensation and becomes part of the rain coming down into the environment.

Is it Possible to have an Open-Casket Ceremony with a Body that has not been embalmed?

In the United States, there are no federal or state laws that require that a body undergo the embalming process.  However, some funeral homes may require that embalming take place for any public viewings held on their premises.  Any home or private viewings with family members and close family friends can be done without the embalming process.

Alternatives to Embalming

In order to avoid the embalming process the body must be kept cool and dry to temporarily stop the decomposition process and preserve the body.  This can be done with gel packs, freezer packs, dry ice, or refrigeration.  However, not all funeral homes have refrigeration facilities so it is best to call and check.  An immediate burial or direct cremation, which is a burial or cremation within 48 hours of the time of death, does away with the need for embalming.  It also saves the family a significant amount of money.