Preserving a dead body – is it always necessary?

What is embalming?

Simply put, embalming is the process of temporarily preserving a corpse by draining the blood and fluids from the body and replacing them with a chemical solution.

Here are two videos that go through the process in detail:

What exactly happens to a body during embalming?

Welcome to Embalming 101

How did embalming become a common practice?

While it’s true that cultures all over the world have preserved bodies (see: ancient Egyptian mummification), embalming as it is practiced today began during the American Civil War.

The origins of modern embalming, and the funeral industry began with the American Civil War and the unusual embalming & burial of President Abraham Lincoln.

Meanwhile, in the Black community the practice of death care and embalming served, (and continues to serve), a valuable purpose including providing a pathway to business ownership, as well as being integral to abolition efforts and community organization. The work of skilled embalmers “often involved masking the effects of violent deaths, such as lynchings,” while the rituals and elegance of Black funerals helped to provide dignity and reverence that too often evade the Black body in life. “African American funeral directors continue to serve the living while burying the dead; in so doing, they continue to remind us of the role that death and funerals have always played in the long quest for freedom.” – Suzanne E. Smith.

Is embalming dangerous to the embalmer?

While embalmers no longer use arsenic to preserve dead bodies (that was for sure dangerous), the use of formaldehyde can also be deadly. Studies have found that male embalmers are at a higher risk for leukemia and ALS.

Caitlin dives more into this subject in the video, Is Embalming Dangerous?

Is the dead body dangerous without embalming?

One of the biggest myths about embalming is that the process is necessary to sanitize the body and make it safe for the family to view. Is it true that a dead body is dangerous without embalming?

This subject is addressed in two separate Ask a Morticians episodes – Are Dead Bodies Dangerous? & Ebola From Dead Bodies?

From the Funeral Consumer’s Alliance:

Embalming provides no public health benefit, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Canadian health authorities. Many morticians have been taught, however, that embalming protects the public health, and they continue to perpetuate this myth.

In fact, embalming chemicals are highly toxic. Embalmers are required by OSHA to wear a respirator and full-body covering while embalming.

Read more on this at Embalming: What you should know.