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I’m Being Told Embalming is Required, is That True?

Unfortunately it is all too common to be told by a funeral home that you will not be able to see or have a viewing for your loved one unless they are embalmed.

It is never legally required to embalm a body. However, in the current funeral system, funeral homes are private businesses. That means they get to decide their individual policies and requirements. If they want to prevent you from having a viewing if your mother is unembalmed, they are allowed to do so. Unethical and illegal are not always the same thing.

Have an honest conversation with your funeral director. Ask about their policies on unembalmed viewings right at the top of your call or arrangement conference. If keeping the body unembalmed is deeply important to you, you will either have to change funeral homes or not view the body. The funeral home may feel that the body is experiencing some decomposition that makes embalming necessary, or that the viewing is two weeks away and the body will change too much in that time period. If they are honest with you about the condition of the body, in an ideal world you should be able to make an informed, supported decision about what you are willing to see.

What is Embalming?

Embalming is the process of temporarily preserving a corpse.

The process is not performed for sanitary or safety reasons, but to briefly slow decomposition.  Blood is drained from the dead body through the veins and replaced with a preservative chemical solution through the arteries. Fluid and waste are removed from the primary body cavity and replaced with a similar chemical solution.

If you are interested in the full details of the process, watch the following videos by Ask a Mortician and National Geographic:

How Did Embalming Become a Common Practice?

Cultures all over the world have preserved bodies (see: ancient Egyptian mummification), but our modern version of embalming began during the American Civil War.

Sepia toned photo from the Civil War Era of four men standing between a large white tent and a wooden table with a white fabric wrapped corpse on top of it. On either sides of the men are two corpses standing in their coffins. There is a sign above them that reads,

Embalmers would follow battles and set up their tents, preserving the bodies of fallen soldiers so they could be transported by train back to their families up north. Even at the time, complaints were registered that “the expense of this process, in most cases, places it advantages beyond the reach of people of moderate means.” By the time President Abraham Lincoln’s embalmed body was taken on a two-week tour of the U.S., embalming had already captured the popular imagination. Entrepreneurs could see there was money to be made in convincing the public that embalming was necessary for sanitation and appearance of the body (the first is untrue, the second debatable).  Embalming is what, in the early 20th century, turned funeral homes from small community offerings into an industry, and funeral directors into paid “experts.”

This is not to say there are never reasons to embalm, most notably the use of embalming in doing complex restorative work on a badly injured body. In the Black community 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.

Is Embalming Dangerous to the Embalmer?

One of the first preservative fluids used in embalming was arsenic, which, in short, was horrifically dangerous to the embalmer. Though embalmers no longer use arsenic to preserve dead bodies, the use of formaldehyde can also be deadly. Studies have found that male embalmers are at a higher risk for leukemia and ALS.  See the headline, “Despite Cancer Risk, Embalmers Stay With Formaldehyde.”

If you are working as an embalmer, your employer is required to provide proper ventilation and personal protective equipment by OSHA standards.

We dive more into this subject in the video, Is Embalming Dangerous?

Is the Dead Body Dangerous if it’s Not Embalmed?

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.

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.

This subject is also addressed in two separate videos: