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Sharon Hunter - September 2021

Myth: You must embalm the body

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If there’s any decision people are likely to delegate to the funeral director, it is embalming. This practice of preserving and presenting the body is performed in America more than any other nation. Next to purchasing the coffin and the funeral home fees, embalming is one of the bigger expenses, costing anywhere from $300 to $800.

So, what is embalming?

Embalming delays decomposition of the body through the use of chemicals and is carried out by a licensed practitioner at the funeral home. Blood is removed and replaced with embalming fluid which contains formaldehyde and other chemicals. Decomposition can take several years, depending on the environment. Unless there is referral to the medical examiner, or the deceased was an organ donor, the organs are not removed.

A short history lesson

During the civil war, the bodies of 1000’s of soldiers were embalmed. They used chemicals (principally arsenic) to delay decomposition so the bodies of soldiers could make the long journey home instead of being buried where they fell on the battlefield.

Following his assassination, president Abraham Lincoln was embalmed, allowing his body to proceed in a funeral train across several states. Thereafter, it became an accepted practice carried out by an undertaker who was specifically trained in the task.

"Embalming is not essential. You can choose to have the body at home."

Presentation of the body

What happens with the presentation of the deceased? During embalming, the body is often prepared for viewing. This involves the use of skin dies, sutures and eye caps, and in the case of hair loss due to illness, maybe a wig. Facial features will be set to a natural appearance and photos are often used as a guide for the embalmer. Appropriate makeup may also be applied. It is a skilled and considered process.

It was popular belief that seeing the deceased looking lifelike ¬helped with the grieving process. Recent commentary suggests otherwise. If illness had taken its toll, seeing the deceased ‘as they once were. can hinder the acceptance of death.

An alternative: Have the body at home

If you’d like to have the body at home, you’ll need to keep the room cool.

  • Portable air conditioners in the room work extremely well.
  • Use ice packs, or chill hot water bottles in the freezer. Pack around the body and rotate often.
  • Place a towel around the hips, or use an adult diaper.
  • If the family are supported by a doula, palliative carer or other professional, they will assist.

Sorting Fact from Fiction

  • There is no hygienic reason for embalming. A dead body is not unsanitary. With the exception of ebola, it is not possible to catch a disease from a dead body.
  • If the body is to be away from a chilled environment for more than 6 hours, it must be embalmed.
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