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Embalming is defined as the preservation of a body from decay, originally with spices and more recently through arterial injection of embalming fluid.

However the current use of the word "embalming" is misleading. The process is generally referred to as cosmetic embalming. It is used to improve the visual appearance of the body, and to prevent deterioration in the period leading up to the funeral. It has no long-term preservative value and cannot be compared with the Egyptian concept of preserving bodies.

History of Embalming

The process is identified with the Egyptians, and the mummification of bodies. In fact, this complicated and extreme method was abandoned, although in recent centuries, ways of preserving bodies has received considerable attention. Varying levels of success were achieved but probably due to expense, they were utilised by very few people.

Embalming Today

The embalming process involves removing the body fluids and replacing them with a solution of formaldehyde, often containing a pink dye. The body fluids are treated and disposed of via the public sewer. The embalming fluid normally consists of a 2% solution of formaldehyde, an irritant, volatile acid. Approximately one pint of embalming fluid per stone weight of the body, plus one pint, is used.

Consequently, one or two gallons of embalming fluid can be used and the effect of this on soil, soil organisms and air quality following burial or cremation needs further independent research.

Embalming on the Environment

Our ignorance of the consequences of using the chemical is a cause for concern. In particular, the chemical is used by funeral directors and embalmers who carry no responsibility for its impact on the cemetery, crematorium or community.

In some burial schemes, such as woodland burial, all chemicals may be prohibited. This restriction may apply to embalming fluid as well as to horticultural chemicals. At the time this charter is being prepared, it has been suggested that a "green" embalming fluid is available. No confirmation of this has been obtained.

Is Embalming Necessary?

In the past thirty years, the commercial promotion of embalming has greatly increased. There has also been an increase in the use of unqualified embalmers over this period. Embalming is particularly evident amongst larger commercial funeral directors in urban locations. Conversely, the process is less common in rural areas, where small funeral directing businesses predominate. This is, in part, due to them lacking the facilities necessary to embalm the body. Also, some funeral directors appear to oppose the process.

The decision as to the merits of embalming must lie with the individual although a number of issues should be considered such as:

  • Viewing the body.
  • The quality of Embalming.

Viewing the Body

You need to consider carefully whether you will benefit from viewing the body at the funeral directors premises. If you do not intend to view the body then there appears no valid reason to choose embalming.

You may also have viewed the body immediately after death and have no wish to repeat this at the funeral directors premises.

You should appreciate that if you wish to view the body, you may be required to pay a fee for using the funeral directors chapel of rest (or repose). Embalming may also be recommended as a pre-requisite to "viewing", the implication being that an unembalmed body may cause distress. You may also feel that you are expected to view the body and that this is a normal occurrence.

The Quality of Embalming

The British Institute of Embalmers (BIE) offers training and certification for members to maintain an identified standard of embalming. Their members may be self-employed and provide a service to funeral directors, or are funeral directors or their staff.

Some comments by the bereaved suggest that following embalming; the facial features of the body have been altered. Also, that the "drawn" appearance of the person prior to death, has been reversed by the unnatural filling-out effect of the embalming fluid. It appears that these are the results of poor quality embalming. If this occurs, you may wish to check wit your funeral director whether the embalmer is qualified.

Your Choice

You should reasonably expect to be informed about the embalming process and the advantages it offers. It should only be undertaken where an effective result is judged to be achieved. Unfortunately, this does not always occur. This is because many people accept the process as "cosmetic treatment" and do not recognise it as embalming. Also the process may be routinely carried out as an inclusive part of the funeral "package" without express permission. This decision is important, as the process will involve an additional cost on the funeral account. In fact, the BIE have issued a Code of Ethics, which clearly supports the need to make a specific decision about embalming. This states: "The client's informed consent, preferably in writing, must be obtained".

If you are opposed to embalming, it may be advisable to expressly forbid it.