The earliest forms of embalmment date back to 5000-6000 BC. It has huge cross-cultural significance and in some cases, the law requires you to embalm a body. It’s considered both a science and an art. But is it really necessary?
What is embalming?
Embalming is the process of preventing deterioration of the body. It removes any distressing signs of death and minimises health risks when coming into contact with the body. Embalming generally comes down to a trinity process of “sanitation, preservation and presentation”.
Do I need to embalm?
It’s important to remember that embalmment is not a necessity and is not a legal requirement in the UK. However, If your loved one passes away while abroad then it may be a legal requirement for the body to be embalmed before it is transported. The only alternative to this is to cremate then bring the ashes home.
If you plan to bury the body in a natural burial ground then you may not want to embalm. As some natural burial grounds will not accept embalmed bodies.
The reasons why someone might be embalmed are numerous. The main reason being that it delays natural decay. Embalming will not preserve the human body forever; it merely delays the inevitable and natural consequences of death. The rate of decomposition will vary, depending on the strength of the chemicals and methods used and the humidity and temperature of the final resting place.
The primary appeal of embalmment is that mourners can come and view the body of a loved one. If the loved one passed in a less than peaceful circumstance then it may be nice for family and friends to be able to see the deceased looking ‘at rest’. For some, this is an integral part of the mourning process and is a great source of comfort. For others, this can be uncomfortable. It is important to know that the body of the deceased will often look different from how the person looked in life. If you are uncomfortable with an open casket, there is no obligation to view the body.
How does one embalm?
There are two main types of embalmment. The first is ‘arterial’ which works by replacing the blood with embalming fluids. The second is ‘cavity’ which involves draining and filling the abdomen and chest.
Before the process begins, the embalmer will wash the body with a disinfectant solution and massage away any rigour mortis.
For arterial embalming, the blood is removed from the body via the veins and replaced with an embalming solution via the arteries. The embalming solution is usually a combination of formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, methanol, ethanol, phenol, and water, and may also contain dyes in order to simulate a life-like skin-tone.
For cavity embalming, a small incision is made near the belly button and a sharp surgical instrument used for drainage, called a trocar, is inserted into the body cavity. Using the trocar, organs in the chest cavity and abdomen are punctured and drained of gas and fluid contents and then replaced with formaldehyde-based chemical mixtures. The incision is closed, and at this point, the body is fully embalmed.
The body is then cosmetically prepared. Facial features are set by putting cotton in the nose, eye caps below the eyelids, and a mouth-former in the mouth, with cotton or gauze in the throat to absorb purging fluids. The mouth is then tied shut with wire or sutures. Glue may be used on the eyelids or lips to keep them closed in an appropriate pose. Facial hair is shaved if necessary.
What are the alternatives?
Some people view embalmment as an unnecessary step which only adds to the cost of an already expensive situation. If the body is going to be buried, then why take all these steps preserving it?
In the case of a direct burial or cremation, then there is no need to embalm. The body is refrigerated until needed. You may have to pay a few for the refrigeration of the body but in most circumstances, it will be a great deal cheaper than the cost of embalmment. If you are having a home or other small-scale viewing of the body, with a burial soon after, then again, there is no need for embalmment.
In any case, should you choose to embalm or not, it is important to research your choices as well as alternative options.