What Is Embalming?

Embalming is a process in which a body is drained of blood and gases and pumped with replacement fluids to temporarily slow its disintegration.

While embalming is fairly common, it is rarely necessary or required by law -- contrary to popularly held opinion.

Many consumers, however, choose to have a body embalmed, particularly if there will be a traditional funeral with an open casket for viewing the deceased's body.

Is embalming required?

A federal law, the Funeral Rule, expressly prohibits funeral directors from telling consumers that embalming is always required by law or that it will preserve a body. That law also provides that funeral directors must explain on a written Statement of Funeral Goods and Services Selected why a fee was charged for embalming. Funeral homes can charge for embalming only when:

  • A family member or other person authorized by law authorizes it (in some states, the consent must be in writing).
  • State or local law requires it, as discussed below.

In the United States, the procedure must be performed by a licensed embalmer, most of whom are affiliated with funeral homes.

When embalming is necessary

State laws on embalming differ, but generally it's only required when:

  • A body will be transported by plane or train from one state or country to another.
  • There is a week or more between the death and a burial or cremation.
  • The death occurred because of a communicable disease and embalming is likely protect the public from it (an extremely rare situation).
If a body isn't embalmed

A body that isn't embalmed will decompose within days instead of weeks.

As an alternative, refrigerating a body will also slow its decomposition until it is viewed or transported for burial or cremation. Most hospitals and funeral homes have facilities for holding or refrigerating bodies.

The cost of embalming

The cost of embalming ranges from $100 to $700, depending on the location and on the facility setting the rate. Refrigerator is usually less costly than embalming, involving a daily charge of $10 to $30 -- and some facilities don't charge at all.

Barbara Kate Repa

Barbara Kate Repa, a lawyer and journalist, has devoted her career to editing and writing about legal issues for consumers. See full bio