Embalming is a process in which chemical fluids are injected into the body to temporarily slow its decomposition. The goal is to preserve the body to make it suitable for public display at a funeral, for long-distance transportation, or for medical or scientific purposes such as anatomical research. It also gives the body what some consider a more “life-like” appearance, which some families want for a public viewing.

How prevalent is embalming?

Embalming is common only in the USA and Canada. Many families consider it to be an essential part of a traditional funeral and burial arrangements, and few question whether it is necessary, or what is involved in the process. This perception was created by the funeral industry for commercial purposes. Most funeral directors will not arrange the public viewing of a body without embalming and cosmetic restoration.

Do any religions forbid it?

Though embalming has no roots in Christianity, it is neither encouraged nor discouraged. Muslim, Bahá’í, and orthodox Jewish faiths consider embalming to be a desecration of the body and prohibit it. Hindus and Buddhists, choosing cremation, have no need for embalming.

When is embalming required?

Embalming is rarely required by law. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission and many state regulators require that funeral directors inform consumers that embalming is not required except in certain special cases.

Does embalming protect community health?

Embalming provides no public health benefit, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. In fact, embalming chemicals are highly toxic. Formaldehyde, the primary chemical in embalming fluid, is a potential human carcinogen, and can be lethal if a person is exposed to high concentrations. Its fumes can also irritate the eyes, nose, and throat.  Embalmers are required by OSHA to wear a respirator and full-body covering while embalming.

How well does embalming preserve the body?

Embalming delays the inevitable and natural consequences of death but does not preserve the human body forever. 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. Ambient temperature has more effect on the decomposition process than the amount of time elapsed since death, whether or not a body has been embalmed. In a sealed casket in above-ground entombment in a warm climate, a body will decompose very rapidly.

Why is embalming promoted?

The funeral industry promotes embalming and viewing as a way to show “proper respect for the body” and to establish the “clear identity” of the corpse so that the reality of death cannot be denied by those who view the body. Many funeral directors believe that seeing the body is a necessary part of the grieving process, even if the death was long-anticipated. Embalming also gives funeral homes an opportunity to increase consumer spending substantially, and once embalming is approved, it is easier to recommend additional body preparation, a more expensive casket with “protective” features, a more expensive outer burial container, and a more elaborate series of ceremonies.

Are there alternatives to embalming?

Direct or immediate burial, without embalming, must be offered by all funeral homes. The body is simply placed in a shroud, casket, or other container, and buried within few days, without visitation or service.

Simple refrigeration will maintain a body while awaiting a funeral service or when there is a delay in making arrangements. Not all funeral homes have refrigeration facilities, but most hospitals do.

Private or home viewing by family members and close friends can occur without embalming and is actually far more “traditional” than some of the services promoted by the industry under that name. For a home funeral or viewing, dry ice, Techni-ice, cooling blankets, fans, and even open windows coulc provide the necessary cooling.