What is Embalming?

A guide to the embalming process

Last updated: 11 April 2017

Please be advised that this article contains an explanation of the processes involved in embalming a body. If you have been recently bereaved, you may find some details distressing. You can speak to your chosen funeral home directly to discuss whether embalming is the right choice for your loved one.

What is embalming?

Embalming is the process of preserving the human body after death to temporarily delay decomposition. Humans have been practicing embalming in various forms for thousands of years.

Many people still choose embalming for their loved ones. Many funeral homes have the facilities to carry out embalming themselves, or can arrange for an embalmer to care for your loved one.

The embalming process

There are two main types of embalming: arterial and cavity. The arterial process works by replacing blood with embalming fluids, whereas cavity involves draining and filling the abdomen and chest.

Before embalming begins, the person who has died is washed with a disinfectant solution and the body is massaged to relieve any rigor mortis, when muscles and joints become stiff after death. The eyes and mouth are closed.

In the case of arterial embalming, the blood is removed via the veins and replaced with embalming fluids via the arteries. Embalming solutions are commonly a mixture of formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, methanol, ethanol, phenol, and water.

In the case of cavity embalming, the natural fluids inside the chest and abdomen are removed via a small incision. These fluids are then replaced by embalming solution and the small incision is closed.

After the embalming process is complete, the body is often cosmetically prepared for viewing. This involves once again washing the person who has died, dressing them, grooming their hair and applying make-up.

Why choose embalming?

Embalming delays natural decay, making it possible to view your loved one for a longer period after their death. Therefore, you may choose embalming if it will be several weeks before the burial and you intend to view your loved one, or allow other mourners to view them. Some people choose embalming because it is a cultural tradition, or simply because their loved one expressed a wish to be embalmed.

In many U.S. states, embalming or refrigeration is a legal requirement if the burial or cremation is not going to take place within 24 hours. Embalming may also be a requirement if your loved one is to be transported across state lines or if they died of a communicable disease (a disease that may be transmitted directly or indirectly by touch).

If you are unsure whether or not embalming is legally required, speak to a local funeral home. Their staff will be able to advise you on your state’s regulations and requirements.