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Is It Necessary to Embalm a Body

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As a licensed funeral director at Trinity Funeral Chapel, one of my most important roles is to take care of those decedents that have been entrusted to us. It is a solemn responsibilty to make sure that families are able to properly honor the memory of their lost loved one, and I take great care to make sure that all the necessary procedures are handled with dignity and respect.

My friends and family often ask me questions about the work I do, and I am sure that many would appreciate to have some of their queries answered regarding what goes on in a funeral home “behind the scenes.”

One of the questions I'm often asked is, “Do I have to go through the process of embalming?”

What does the law say about embalming?

Embalming is definitely not a requirement, and in fact the Funeral Law quite strictly forbids any funeral homes from stating otherwise. This ruling has been issued by the Federal Trade Commission...

...With regard to the Pennsylvania Code and its corresponding mandate with regard to the professional conduct of funeral directors in this Commonwealth, such code states that in the case of a corpse not being embalmed within 24 hours after passing away, those remains must be placed inside a secure container in order to prevent any strong or foul odors from escaping, or, alternatively, those remains must be refrigerated. 

If the remains are stored in refrigeration until the time of a funeral ceremony, then those remains must be correctly disposed of within 5 hours after being taken out of the refrigeration. The Code also states that any unembalmed body that has been kept in refrigeration for more than 36 hours should not be viewed by the public.

That’s a rather long “but.”

If the family decides against having a public viewing before the cremation of their loved one, there is no requirement for them to go with the embalming process. The Federal Trade Commission also prohibits funeral homes from stating that it is necessary for the human remains to be embalmed prior to cremation. (Furthermore, the FTC forbids funeral homes to suggest that a casket is necessary for cremation services, though this is an entirely different matter.)

The careful embalming of a human body by a licensed funeral director is mandatory if one wishes to have the remains interred in a mausoleum in a cemetery. This is not something mandated by either the federal or state government, but rather is a stipulation held by the cemetery itself.

To ensure a successful service, we at Trinity Funeral Chapel implore that we be allowed to perform the embalming process when the public has been invited to a funeral with an open-casket viewing preceding the service.

What is embalming?

Embalming is a medical process carried out to drain the body’s blood and substitute it with specific chemicals. It serves three main purposes: disinfection, preservation, and restoration.

The remains are disinfected to prevent the spread of harmful microbes, preserved to slow down the natural process of decomposition, and restored to give the person an eased look.

According to federal law, it is forbidden to declare that embalming can entirely stop the process of decomposition. Embalming is a measure that funeral directors take to slow down decomposition, so that people can view the deceased's body.

The Embalming Process

Records indicate that the art of embalming a deceased person, preserving the body from decomposition, began in Ancient Egypt as far back as 6000 B.C. The reason for embalming might vary, it could be of religious significance, or simply to combat the risk of infection or contamination.

Nowadays, embalming is a matter of personal preference and depends on the type of visitation or service chosen by the family. Funeral practitioners often face questions concerning the procedure of preparation. Here is a summary of what takes place.

The Embalming Process, Step by Step

Prior to commencing embalming, the body is cleansed with an antiseptic solution. Limbs are caressed to assuage the constricting of the joints and muscles. Any requisite shaving would also transpire at this juncture.

To keep the eyes of your loved one closed, glue or plastic eye caps sit on the eye to hold the eyelid in position. The lower jaw is then secured with wires or sewing, and the mouth can be moved to the desired expression.

As part of the embalming process, the blood is drained from the body through the veins and replaced with a formaldehyde-based solution through the arteries. This solution can contain compounds such as glutaraldehyde, methanol, ethanol, phenol, water, and dyes, to preserve the body and give it a more lifelike appearance.

After arterial embalming is complete, the body's cavities need to be embalmed as well. To do this, a small incision is made in the deceased's abdomen, allowing a trocar (a sharp surgical instrument) to be inserted into the cavity.

After making an incision, the organs in the chest and abdomen are punctured and drained of their gas and fluid contents. Next, formaldehyde-based chemicals are injected to preserve the body. Finally, the incision is sutured to complete the embalming process.

With embalming complete, a professional touch of cosmetics is applied to the deceased to ensure they look their best. Hair is then lovingly washed and set according to the wishes of the deceased's family.

Your loved one will be dressed in the clothing of your choosing. After the cosmetization and dressing process is complete, the deceased is placed into a casket and prepared for visitation or service with dignity and respect.

But what about refrigeration?

Embalming has long been a controversial topic, with some critics pointing out that refrigeration can do just as good of a job at controlling the rate of decomposition. Is embalming really necessary, or can refrigeration provide an adequate alternative?

The reality is a bit more complicated. Yes, refrigeration does slow decomposition, but the rate of decomposition for human remains varies. Factors like a person's weight, height, age, and medical conditions all play a role in how quickly signs of decomposition become visible.

Death is a natural process, but the rate at which a body decomposes can vary greatly. One person's remains could take several days to show signs of decomposition, while another's may be very noticeable just a few hours after passing. On top of that, refrigeration plays a role in how a person's body appears after death.

Refrigeration can take a shocking toll on the human body, causing skin to dry out and facial features to sink and sag. In some cases, the transformation can be drastic, rendering someone entirely unrecognizable.

Creating a Final Memory Picture

When embalming a deceased person, the main focus is to create a lasting positive memory for their loved ones; a vision of them without the sadness caused by sickness or trauma.

Through the use of special wax and a fine coat of mortuary makeup, any wounds, scrapes, or cuts on the body can be made to disappear. The embalming process can also be used to revive sunken eyes and hollow cheeks. Even bruises from a trauma or IV line can be masterfully concealed.

Recently, Helena Guess, Funeral Director at Trinity Funeral Chapel, had the heartbreaking task of helping a family whose loved one had tragically lost their suffered with tongue and throat cancer. In an attempt to beat the cancer, this woman's entire lower jaw had been removed.

Honoring the wishes of the family, Helena worked hard to make sure the deceased's body was presentable for an open-casket viewing. Using her skills with wax, a stippling brush, and mortuary cosmetics, she was able to reconstruct the jaw to honor the vibrant woman who had many friends and connections to the community.

Helena's reconstruction was remarkable - so much so that those who attended her services were astonished to hear a family member mention in the eulogy that she had been missing a prominent facial feature.

For survivors who have been tragically impacted by sudden or traumatic loss, such as the death of a loved one from a car crash, violent crime, or suicide, the desire to see their loved one's remains is often quite strong. Funeral directors are able to restore human remains affected by trauma to a condition that is familiar to their loved ones, thanks to the restorative work performed during and after embalming.

Embalming can be a challenging process for remains that have been autopsied or have undergone donations, but the results bring peace and healing to the families. It allows them to see their loved one for one last time, and serves as a testament to the dedication of the embalmer.

Over and over again, we hear from families how comforting and therapeutic it was to find their loved one laid in peace with a serene expression on their face. Recently, a woman testified about her anxiety about seeing her mother again.

She had been there at the nursing home for her mother's death, and the sight of her mother's lifeless figure was etched in her mind. She recounted how her mother's eyes, opened and empty, were all she could think of.

We invited her a day prior to the funeral services, giving her and her brother a chance to pay their last respects without any disruptions. Our funeral parlor had carefully embalmed, dressed, and laid their mother in her casket, just as she would be presented on the day of her funeral.

After spending almost an hour with their mother, the siblings left the viewing parlor with smiles on their faces. The woman marveled at how her mother looked just like she did when she still had the energy to go have her hair done. “My mother hasn't looked this much like herself since the chemo began,” she said with a hint of admiration in her voice.

Grief studies have consistently found that viewing plays a crucial role in helping us come to terms with a loss. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross explains that denial can be a coping mechanism that helps us push away overwhelming emotions. However, in order for us to heal, we must eventually move past this denial.

Confirming the death of a loved one by viewing the body can be a difficult but important process. Touching the hands or caressing the cheek of the deceased allows survivors to show their love and confront their own feelings about their loss. Seeing the body of a beloved individual is a powerful way of coming to terms with the reality of death.

Grief studies suggest that viewing a body can help provide closure for those mourning a loss - but not seeing the body can leave a person with a lingering sense of uncertainty. Wondering if their loved one is really gone or if the person in the casket is really their relative can be a source of distress. There can be a certain comfort found in having certainty.

Some believe that viewing a loved one's body after death can be too traumatic and offsets the good memories shared with them. But, how does this fit into funeral services? Let's explore this controversial topic.

While I understand the temptation to focus on the fond memories, I must emphasize that deciding to view a deceased loved one’s body is entirely up to the individual. No one should ever be coerced into viewing the remains of a loved one if it is not something they wish to do. Doing so can have a profoundly negative impact and can be incredibly traumatic.

It's important for each person to determine what feels right for them in a certain situation. From a professional standpoint, I believe that entrusting the funeral home with embalming offers the best chance for families to have a serene last memory of their dearly departed.

In summary

Embalming is not required by federal law, but we do recommend that the family allow us to perform the embalming at their request, when planning a public, open casket viewing.

As a licensed funeral director, I'm passionate about providing respectful care for the deceased and honoring their life with a peaceful, true-to-life appearance. I take great pride in every step of embalming that I do to ensure this goal is met. It's an incredible honor to have families entrusting their loved one's bodily remains to the funeral home's care.

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