Have you ever wondered what happens when someone is embalmed?
The embalming process dates back to the Egyptians as early as 6,000 B.C. and is used for the sanitation, preservation, or presentation of the deceased’s body. Here is an inside look into how the embalming process works and a little history behind it.
The organic compound formaldehyde, the fluid used for embalming, was discovered in 1867 by German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, formaldehyde’s reactivity with proteins is the groundwork for its use as a disinfectant and an embalming agent.
During the Civil War, embalming really took off because it allowed bodies to be returned home from the battlefield for a funeral service. It then became a common practice for modern funerals so there could be open casket funeral services.
These days, according to The Urban Death Project, the amount of embalming fluid used every year could fill eight Olympic-sized swimming pools. But with cremation becoming more popular than burials and a rise in green burials, the embalming rate may decrease since embalming isn’t required for these practices unless the family chooses to have their loved one embalmed to hold a service.
The first thing done when beginning the embalming process is disinfecting the body and massaging the muscles to stop rigor mortis, or stiffening of the muscles. Any facial hair is shaved off, unless the deceased typically wore facial hair. Then, the facial features are set by closing the eyes with eye caps or skin glue and wiring the jaw shut to prevent the mouth from coming open during a viewing.
If the jaw is wired shut, a needle injector is used to insert the wire into the upper and lower jaw. Then, the wires are tied together to keep the mouth closed. If the jaw is sewn shut, suture string is threaded below the lower gums up through the upper gums, through the right or left nostril, through the septum, through the other nostril, and back through the mouth where the suture strings are tied together.
Then comes arterial embalming, when the blood is drained through the veins and replaced with embalming fluid through the arteries. The embalming fluid is typically made up of formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, methanol, ethanol, phenol, water, and dyes to give the skin a life-like color.
Next is cavity embalming, which gets rid of any gas or fluids in the organs and fills them with embalming fluid. To do this, a trocar, which is a drainage surgical instrument, is inserted into a small incision made by the belly button and used to puncture and drain the organs and abdomen of gas and fluids. The extracted fluids are replaced with embalming fluid, and then the incision is closed once the process is completed.
Sometimes hypodermic embalming may be used to inject embalming fluid into places difficult to reach. Using a hypodermic needle and syringe, embalming fluid is injected into any areas the arterial embalming fluids didn’t make it to.
The whole embalming process takes about 45 minutes to an hour, but it can take several hours to get the deceased cosmetically ready. The cosmetic process involves makeup, hair styling, and dressing the deceased. If the deceased suffered facial injuries, cosmetic reconstruction can be done using wax, plastic, or other materials.
Some funerals homes allow extreme embalming, which is when the deceased is posed in a life-like pose. Often the deceased is posed in a way that shows their personality or interests and hobbies.
For example, Miriam Burbank was posed sitting with a beer and cigarette in her hand at a New Orleans funeral home. The family wanted the funeral service to have a party-like atmosphere.
Religion and Embalming
For some religions, embalming isn’t an acceptable practice. Muslim and Jewish religions don’t believe in embalming and will opt to not have their loved ones embalmed unless it’s required by law.