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What is Embalming?

Embalming is the process of injecting a dead body with chemicals in order to temporarily preserve it. It is commonly used in the United States to help make a body look more lifelike before a viewing or funeral, as well as to help preserve corpses used for medical training and research.

The History of Embalming

While some forms of embalming have been around for thousands of years (most notably in South America, Egypt and China), embalming first became popular in the United States during the Civil War. When soldiers died in battle, embalming was used to preserve bodies so they could make the journey back home to be buried.

For a period after the war, embalming declined again in popularity, but it reemerged at the end of the 19th century with the rise in established funeral homes. As formal funerals handled by experienced morticians became more commonplace, embalming was offered as a way to give families additional time to organize a funeral.

The Embalming Process

In the United States, the embalming process generally involves pumping blood and other bodily fluids out of a dead body and replacing them with a formaldehyde-based chemical solution via tubes that are inserted into blood vessels, body cavities and body tissues via needles or incisions. Surface embalming may also be used supplementally to preserve and restore areas directly on the skin’s surface.

A standard embalming will usually take between 2 and 4 hours, but because an embalmer will also fix and cover up any fatal wounds and/or incisions from an autopsy or organ donation, embalming can take much longer. This process of fixing up the body is part of the reason individuals and families opt for embalming, especially if the body is going to be viewed by others.

In addition to the chemical embalming, an embalmer will generally wash the body, relieve rigor mortis, close the dead person’s eyes and mouth, and apply makeup (male or female) to make the person look more lifelike. The embalmer will also prepare the deceased for viewing by dressing and grooming them.

How Much Does Embalming Cost?

The cost of embalming can vary greatly by funeral home and location, but the average price for embalming is about $700 in the United States. Embalming is rarely required, so it’s worth considering whether or not it makes sense for you or a loved one.

Benefits of Embalming

The primary benefit of embalming for most families (in combination with makeup and other grooming) is that it helps the dead body of a loved one look more lifelike during a viewing and/or funeral, which can help some people say goodbye. If you’re not planning to have people view the body at any point, embalming may be unnecessary. Similarly, some people have an easier time finding closure if they see the dead body in its natural state, and therefore prefer to pass on embalming. The use of embalming usually comes down to a personal choice. Contrary to popular myth, embalming does not prevent a body from decaying over time (but it does slow down the process). Even though embalmed bodies are presentable, some find viewing an embalmed body to be an unnerving experience.

Embalming and the Environment

Embalming has faced criticism in recent years for releasing formaldehyde (a common embalming chemical) into the soil (and subsequently the water and air). As a result, green cemeteries prohibit standard embalming. However, if you’re interested in embalming but also want to be environmentally friendly, some funeral homes are able to use eco-friendly embalming fluids that are accepted by green cemeteries.

Religious Views on Embalming

Most major world religions are either neutral or against embalming. Most sects of Christianity (including Catholicism and the Church of Latter-day Saints) allow embalming, but do not specifically encourage it. However, certain sects of the Eastern Orthodox Church either ban or strongly discourage embalming, except when required by law. Similarly, the Islamic and Jewish faiths do not practice embalming, preferring to bury the body as quickly as possible in its natural state.

Embalming is considered acceptable for both Buddhists and Hindus; however, cremation is traditional in both religions, so embalming is less commonly practiced.

Is Embalming Required?

While many funeral homes heavily promote it, embalming is rarely required by law. Laws vary by state, but no state requires it for most deaths. Two common exceptions are if a funeral home is unable to provide proper refrigeration and the body will not be buried or cremated within a certain time period, or if the body will be transported across state or country lines. Because each state is different, it’s a good idea to ask your funeral director whether embalming is required in your situation, and if not, what alternatives are available to you.

Do you have to have a body embalmed for a cremation?

Embalming is mainly to preserve the body for viewing purposes, so having an embalming done without a viewing is unnecessary. If you're going to have a cremation without a viewing (also known as a direct cremation), you should generally skip the embalming process. Even if you opt for a cremation with a viewing, depending on the time of the cremation, you can skip the embalming process.

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Last updated June 15, 2022
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