This is probably one of the most-asked questions a funeral director gets.
Embalming and other types of preservation have been recorded in history as far back as the Egyptians. Back in those days, only the wealthy were embalmed, or "mummified", and history has shown that the Egyptian mummies were well preserved for thousands of years. Over the years the procedure has changed many times to what we now know as modern day embalming.
We use embalming today for two primary reasons - to allow adequate time between death and burial to observe social customs such as visitations and funeral services, and to prevent the spread of infection. Cosmetic work is often used for esthetic reasons.
Modern embalming now consists primarily of removing all blood and gases from the body and inserting a disinfecting fluid. Small incisions are made and the disinfecting fluid is injected through the carotid or femoral artery, and the blood is drained from the jugular or femoral vein.
If an autopsy is being performed, the vital organs are removed and immersed in an embalming fluid, and then replaced in the body, often surrounded by a preservative powder. If an autopsy is not performed, the embalmer aspirates fluids out of the body cavity by making a small incision near the navel and aspirating the bodily fluids.
Why do we embalm?
Embalming is primarily done to disinfect and preserve the remains. Disinfection is important for all who have to handle the remains, and for the public safety of our communities. In the years gone by, deaths due to typhoid fever, malaria and other highly contagious diseases, put funeral directors and others who came into contact with the remains at a very high risk of contracting the same disease. Secondly, it has been a tradition to have a period of visitation of the remains. Friends and family gather to view the remains and pay tribute to a family member or friend that has died. We gather to console the family on their loss, and to express sympathy to them. Without embalming, most remains would not be viewable within a short period of time. There are constant changes going on chemically and physically within the remains that change the looks and other qualities that we are accustomed to seeing. Embalming acts as a hindrance to this, and gives us the time needed to pay respect and express our sympathies.
How is embalming done?
When remains arrive at a funeral home, it is subjected to a series of steps before the actual preparation of remains are complete.
Step 1: Pre-Embalming Prep
First, the embalmer lays the remains out on a stainless steel or porcelain embalming table, not unlike those used for an autopsy. He or she then carefully inventories any jewelry, usually taping or tying rings in place, so they do not disappear. Other jewelry and glasses are removed during embalming and then replaced on the remains.
Step 2: Preparation
The embalmer cleans the skin surface with a disinfectant spray or solution by sponging it onto the remains. Next, the embalmer positions the remains. He/she relieves rigor mortis (the stiffening of muscle tissue due to chemical change) by flexing and massaging the arms and legs. Then he or she will move the limbs to a suitable position, usually with the legs extended and arms at the sides. To begin the embalming process, which is the removal of blood and replacing it with a formaldehyde based fluid, a small incision is made. It is at this position that two of the largest circulatory vessels are located. The carotid artery and the jugular vein.
Step 3: Embalming Process
Incisions are made in both vessels, and a tube connected to the embalming fluid pump is placed into the carotid artery, another tube is placed into the jugular vein, this is called a drain tube. The basic theory is to pump embalming fluid into the artery, and this will cause the blood to return through the veins and flow outside the remains for disposal. Approximately 3 gallons of a mixture of fluid and water are circulated through the remains for thorough disinfection and preservation to take place. In most cases, this will be the only point of injection of the embalming fluid. There are many factors which go into the process, which cannot be explained here due to space limitations, but some of the factors that the embalmer must assess before embalming are the mode of death, the weight of the remains, the general overall condition of the remains, any disease associated with the remains, etc. These factors determine the types and strengths of fluids used, and the type of embalming necessary to complete the task. Many fluids have a slight dye added to them, which gives the remains a pinkish glow, and also acts as a guide for the embalmer, making it visible for him to see the fluid as it travels through the remains. This type of embalming is known as arterial embalming.
The next step, called cavity embalming, is the application of full strength fluid to the internal organs of the remains. A small incision is made just above the navel, and a long needle is placed inside the abdominal and thoracic cavities of the remains. The embalmer aspirates both the abdominal and thoracic cavities. Aspiration is the removal of blood and other bodily fluids, through suction. The trocar is then attached to a gravity fed system, which causes full strength fluid to be put into each organ, causing a more thorough disinfection and preservation of the remains. All incisions are then sutured closed.
Step 4: Washing
The embalmer then bathes the remains with water and soap, including washing the hair. Hairdressing is done after embalming has been completed.
Any hair stubble on the remains is shaved with a razor. Facial hair is removed from all bodies, including those of women and children who may have excess facial hair because of medications they received, or because they have downy hair on their upper lips and cheeks.
Step 5: Dressing and Casketing
The fifth and final step is dressing and casketing of the remains. Using the clothes provided by the family, the embalmer proceeds to dress the remains. It is common to use a full set of clothing, including underwear, socks or stockings, and sometime even shoes if so desired. Once dressed the embalmer will begin the cosmeticizing of the face and hands of the remains. Usually a special mortuary cosmetic is used, although store-bought cosmetics may be used in some cases. This is the true art of the embalmer; it is through the proper application of cosmetics, that a more life-like presentation will be made. Too much or too little cosmetic has a definite affect on the appearance of the remains. Proper colouring must be determined, and the cosmetics adjusted as such.
The final step in the preparation of the remains is to place the remains in a casket. Adjustments to clothing, touching up of hair and cosmetics and properly fixing the interior of the casket. This final step is usually very time consuming and must be done properly. This is the result of all the other work combined. The embalmer tries to pose both the head and hands in a life-like position, and finishes up his work by making everything look tidy and uniform.