How Does Embalming Work?

2 answers | Last updated: Sep 14, 2017
A fellow caregiver asked...

How does embalming work?

Expert Answers

Barbara Repa, a senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

Embalming is a process in which blood and gases are removed from a body and replacement fluids are pumped in to temporarily retard its disintegration.

During the process, which should be conducted by a specially licensed embalmer, small incisions are made in the body and fluid is injected into arteries, while the blood is drained through the veins. The embalming fluid is a mixture of chemicals usually made up of methanol, formaldehyde, and ethanol. The body is then washed and sealed.

An autopsy can be performed on an embalmed body, although the embalming process must be conducted differently, with that in mind.

Embalming usually involves a number of final steps aimed at improving the body's appearance where there will be an open casket or public viewing. These aesthetic touches include setting and adjusting the facial features; adding structural enhancements and makeup to the hair, face, and hands; and dressing the body in specified clothing. Since the aim is to create a natural and lifelike appearance, it's helpful to provide the embalmer and others involved with the final preparations of the corpse with a recent picture of the deceased, and even grooming products or makeup that he or she used.

Community Answers

Jeffinprov answered...

Without wishing to offend, this is a rather simplified and sanitized answer to a question that many funeral professionals are loathe to discuss in any sort of detail. A more detailed and less euphemistic description is available at Wikipedia, although it makes use of the industry's terminology and concept of the corpse's cosmetic enhancement for the purpose of creating "a memory picture." The process of embalming is a highly intrusive and utterly artificial process; given a thorough understanding of that process, and the opportunity to consider its value (in the absence of high-pressure sales techniques and the influence of "customary" social practices, I am little surprised when people choose other options for themselves and those for whom they have responsibility.

As I consider the issue, having been exposed throughout my life to many dead bodies both prior to and subsequent to embalming, one of the few successful embalming jobs done on anyone to whom I was close was in the case of a famous entertainer, where no expense was spared, and whose face and hands were in good shape at the time of death. (She would have been thrilled, believe me.) More typically, the "memory picture" is a travesty, and the notion that seeing a loved one "done up" by a stranger is somehow conducive to the grieving process is, in my personal view, a very disturbing and potentially destructive thing.