Embalming Explained

Embalming is physically treating a dead body using preservatives that help slow down the body’s decomposition process. The embalming fluids are developed from dangerous chemicals such as methanol, formaldehyde, and other toxic solvents. In America, most funeral homes make the arterial fluid by mixing 30 percent or slightly more of formaldehyde with water. This combination is strong enough to restore body cells for some time.

Bodies are embalmed to allow for comfortable viewing of the dead body in an area such as an open coffin, church service, or funeral home. It is conducted because a dead body tends to rot from within and look very different from when the person was living. Embalming helps maintain the person’s original appearance while giving off a peaceful, sleepy vibe and a sense of wellness. It is essential in comforting the bereaved, especially where the dead person succumbed to a disease. During the process, the embalming fluids are injected into the body’s circulatory system as bodily fluids such as blood are drained off the system. Embalming is conducted by highly trained professionals at licensed funeral homes or research laboratories.

History of the Embalming Process

Embalming is viewed among the world’s oldest practiced art of body preservation. The Egyptians first used embalming in 3000B.C since they had a strong belief in the resurrection of the body where only well-maintained bodies would make it. Modern reasons for preservation revolve around protection to all research on anatomical studies, all transportation of the body over long distances, and body viewing.

The term ’embalm’ originates from the 14nth century ’embaumen’, which stood to rub balm or ointment on something. The old French word ’embausmer’ is most relative since it means preserving a dead body in spices.

Early Egyptians preserved the body in charcoal and sand after wrapping it up in aromatic spices such as resins, balsam, cider, and other perfumes. They were then buried to levels where the Nile water could not reach them. The cavities from the extracted organs were maintained by applying powder myrrh and resin ointments, stitched, and covered using hydrated sodium carbonate. After drying up, it was washed briefly, wrapped in cotton, and entombed. Below is a step by step guide for the mummification process:

  1. Brains and intestines were extracted, rinsed in palm wine, and stored in canopic jars laced in herbs and spices.
  2. The heart was retained in the body since it was a common Egyptian belief that it controlled man.
  3. The body was dipped in Natron (hydrated sodium bicarbonate) and allowed to dry out for 40 days.
  4. They then filled the body using sawdust to help rejuvenate the limp, lifeless state of the corpse.
  5. The deceased was cleaned in a wine and spice bath, wrapped in fresh linen, and left to lay for another 30 days.
  6. After the mummification process was over, they were positioned in a mummy case for entombing in a coffin.

How Embalming Works

The first step to embalming is the funeral service receiving permission from the deceased body to conduct the process, as required by the Federal Trade Commission. It is, however, not mandatory state law unless the body has to be transported across Alabama, Alaska, and New Jersey states. States such as California, Minnesota, Idaho, and Kansas require embalming a body shipped under standard courier.

The embalmer applies techniques that allow even preservative distribution, such as gentle massages. These techniques help in clearing discoloration on the corpse, enable the body to restore standard stiffness, and maintain the softness of the hands and face. It is essential to avoid excessive or aggressive massage techniques resulting in dehydration, thus causing swelling.

How to Prepare A Body for Embalming

Before the embalming process is conducted, the body has to be prepared for the process using a few select steps. Here is a general guide on the measures taken for the process to complete:

  1. The deceased body is laid on a table, thoroughly cleaned in a disinfectant solution, and dried.
  2. The embalming fluids are injected into the body arterially using a unique tube that connects to an embalming machine. The fluids harden the body tissues rendering the body unsuitable for bacteria hosting. Thus, decomposition slows down. An embalmer uses 1 gallon of the embalming fluid for every 50 pounds of the dead bodyweight. Find out more about embalming fluid in our in-depth article here.
  3. Blood is drained from the veins( venous system).
  4. The blood vessels are tied while the incision holes get stitched.
  5. Liquids and gasses are removed from the internal body cavity as a treatment method. The preservative fluids are spread in the cavity to slow internal decomposition.
  6. Washing and dressing the body is conducted.
  7. Ointments and cosmetics are applied to rejuvenate the body’s appearance. Facial hair is shaven unless the deceased loved wearing facial hair.
  8. Facial features such as the eyes are closed using skin glue or flesh colored ‘eyecaps’ to ensure the eyelids stay put.

The Embalming Process

There are four major processes involved in the embalming process. These are arterial embalming, cavity embalming, hypodermic embalming, and surface embalming.

1.  Arterial Embalming

The embalming solution is injected into the blood vessels through the right common carotid artery. Blood is taken out through the right jugular vein. An embalming machine and embalmer massager helps properly distribute the fluid. Where circulation is poor, extra injections are administered.

2.  Cavity Embalming

Internal fluids within the body cavity are extracted using an aspirator and a trocar. Small incisions are made above the navel to allow access into the chest and abdominal cavities. Cavity chemicals are inserted, and the incisions are sutured, often using a purse string.

3.  Hypodermic Embalming

Embalming chemicals are injected under the skin using a hypodermic syringe and needle. It is a substitute used to treat spots missed by the first arterial injection.

4.  Surface Embalming

Often used as a supplementary method on injured, visible organs. These are areas where damage was caused by accidents, skin donation, cancer, or earlier decomposition.

The embalming process can take anything from 2 to 4 hours only if there are no complications. Embalming a body that has gone through excessive trauma, autopsy, or long bone donor restoration can take up to days before completion.

How Long Does Embalming Preserve A Body?

When not under view in open caskets, Embalmed bodies are often stored under refrigeration or in a cold room. Thus, the decomposition of an embalmed body can take anything from months to years, depending on its surrounding environment. Embalmed bodies donated and preserved for anatomy and medical research can last for years before they are cremated.

 Embalming fluids can preserve a body indefinitely. However, after the burial, excessive moisture and humidity conditions allow bacteria to multiply, thus finally decaying. It takes roughly eight to 12 years for the total decomposition of an embalmed body buried 6 feet under. Complete decomposition, in this case, means that only the skeleton survives.

States in America that Require Embalming

Alabama requires that you embalm the body before it leaves the state unless its intended purpose is medical research.

Arkansas demands that a body must be embalmed or refrigerated after 24 hours if it is not cremated. It is mandatory to embalm the body regardless of it being shipped out.

California requires embalming or shipping in airtight containers when transporting and forwarding the body through a standard courier.

Delaware, it is prohibited to embalm a body if the deceased suffers from infectious diseases. The prohibition is effective in Hawaii too.

Iowa, one must report communicable diseases to the attending physician. This helps since it is required to embalm bodies that succumb to those diseases.

Michigan requires mandatory embalming for bodies having rare infectious and contagious illnesses.  A body must also be embalmed after a 48 hour period if it has not been transported yet.

Minnesota, the Commissioner for Health may order embalming for bodies with certain contagious illnesses.

Missouri demands to embalm bodies with infectious diseases that have not been buried within 24 hours.

Nevada may order embalming for bodies with contagious diseases.

North Carolina forbids embalming for bodies with infectious diseases. Instead, they are encased in sealed caskets.

Cost of Embalming

The average cost of embalming in America is between 500 to 700 dollars. It often does not exceed 1000 dollars. Having burial insurance is vital as it can pay up to 750 dollars worth of the embalming bill.

Embalming is commonly practiced in America and less practiced in Europe. It is viewed as a modern method of temporarily reserving bodies to allow the deceased relatives and loved one’s time to travel and view the body. Science benefits from the procedure, too, since it helps reserve specimen cadavers. Some religious faiths such as Judaism and Islam are against the practice since they bury their dead as soon as possible. Some green funeral grounds are against the practice, too, since the embalming fluids may seep into the soil and leach it. All in all, it is a practice to pick depending on how it best serves you and the needs of your loved one.


Readinform is a Wisconsin based writer for funerals explained. They have come to understand the struggles of death and loss. Through life experience they have gathered the knowledge to help others and answer questions related to the funeral industry. When not writing readyinform focuses on learning new things and exploring the differences society offers.

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