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Do You Have to be Embalmed?

According to Time, embalming is more popular in the United States than any other country on the planet -- but is it necessary? With more and more families turning to cremation instead of burial, this popular practice appears to be on the decline, especially as families become more environmentally conscious.

What is embalming?

Embalming is the process of temporarily delaying decomposition and preserving a body for the purpose of letting mourners view the body. The process of embalming a body is as follows:

  1. The body is washed and massaged with cream so that the skin is soft and easier to manipulate. Gauze or cotton is placed in different parts of the face to set facial features and to absorb any purged fluids. The mouth is usually sutured shut at this point in the process as well.
  2. The blood is drained from the body and is replaced by fluid, usually a solution of formaldehyde and water), by injection into a main artery.
  3. Cavity fluid is drained from the body using a needle and is replaced with preservatives (similar to embalming fluid).
  4. Other orifices are packed with gauze to prevent fluids from escaping at any point in the process.
  5. Once the body is prepared, the nails can be manicured and pedicured, wax is used to shape the face if it’s damaged, and makeup and hair is styled.
  6. The body is finished being embalmed and usually dressed and placed into the casket at this point in the embalming process.

Even though the official embalming definition in a dictionary may state that it “preserves” a body or “prevents” decay, it’s important to note that it is impossible to prevent a body from decaying entirely (without constant upkeep), even if it’s embalmed.

Is embalming required by law?

While embalming a body is a common practice for those being buried, it is not required by law. Some states and countries do have their own laws regarding embalming when transporting a body to a different state or country, but there is no legal requirement to embalm a body otherwise.

How long does it take to embalm a body?

Embalming a body is a relatively quick process that’s usually completed within a few hours. The embalming process can be affected by factors such as the body’s condition before the embalming process.

How long can you wait to embalm a body?

In general, you should aim to have a body embalmed within 24 hours of the death occurring. This will prevent the body from decaying before it has a chance to be embalmed. According to FuneralCompanion, waiting longer than 2 days to embalm a body (when it’s being prepared for an open casket funeral or viewing) is not recommended. Waiting longer than 2 days to embalm a body could lead to some embalming horror stories, especially for the embalmer responsible for preparing the body.

What happens if a body is not embalmed?

Bodies that are not embalmed will decompose at a potentially slightly faster rate than those that are embalmed, but they will eventually decompose. Decomposition of the body is inevitable and unavoidable, regardless of whether or not a body is embalmed. What happens if you choose to embalm a body is the same as what happens when you don’t embalm a body: the body will decompose, just a little slower.

Can you be buried without being embalmed?

Being buried without being embalmed is entirely acceptable. Embalming is not a requirement for any method of disposition and can even make some feel uncomfortable. Keep in mind that embalming does not prevent the body from naturally decomposing, it only slightly delays the process. Being buried or cremated without being embalmed will also save you at least $700 (and sometimes much more than that). Even if you’re working with a funeral home that recommends embalming, remember that it’s generally not necessary or required.

Do you have to be embalmed?

Embalming is not a required process, regardless of the method of disposition. Families who are holding viewings or open casket services will often choose to have the body embalmed so that the body appears as normal as possible. It’s also worth noting that viewings can and do occur with an unembalmed body as long as the body has been properly refrigerated. In these cases, the family should be prepared that the body may not appear as lifelike as it would if the body were embalmed.

If you’re planning a funeral, you should consider starting up a memorial website. Memorial websites on Ever Loved are free, easy to use, and stay up indefinitely. To get started, head here.

Start a memorial website

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Last updated June 8, 2021
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