Facts about Embalming

Why should you Embalm and Why does the Funeral Home and Funeral Director Recommend it?

Embalming is a controversial part of the Death Care industry. Consumer activists, and even some law makers, have been discouraging its use for decades, yet it still remains a popular, costly practice that is a very common part of any traditional funeral service. Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but at least one or two commentators who have been outspokenly against the practice for many years have expressed alarm at what they perceive to be an increase in the number of embalming’s done in the United States in recent years. (In European countries, the number does seem to be decreasing, experts say, though, again, reliable statistics seem to be almost non-existent. There appears to be no common requirement anywhere that embalmers report their work to any government agency in any country.)

Because the controversy seems to carry on, even as embalming may be on the rise in popularity, we believe it is important to assemble and offer this article summarizing some important facts about the practice.

What is Embalming:

Many people who utilize an embalmer’s services assume that it is a fairly cosmetic practice involving mostly the exterior of a deceased person’s body. Makeup is often assumed to be the main tool of an embalmer’s trade as he or she works to make a body fit for public display at a funeral service.

But there is much more to it, and many opponents of the practice have pointed out over the years that, when consumers read about the grotesque nature of most embalming’s, they are usually less likely to opt for it for themselves or for their loved one.

In fact, applying makeup is only a small part of what happens during an embalming, and, further, a licensed embalmer is not even required for that part of the procedure. (A too little known fact: even when a family does not choose embalming, make up is generally applied to bodies that will be displayed in an open casket. This is a routine part of a funeral home’s service, usually covered in the basic service fee paid to cover all routine services the home provides.) Often make up application is done by a funeral home employee who is in training to be a certified embalmer, it is sometimes considered a part of his or her early training to do that. Other times, the makeup is applied by a licensed hair stylist hired by the funeral home, and this person has no training, or even desire to be an embalmer.

So, what then does an embalming entail?

Well, as we say above, it can be a bit grotesque.

For starters, a body’s internal organs are “pickled” with the use of chemicals pumped into the body to give the corpse a “pumped up” look. It may be important for consumers to know that these chemicals, of course, displace the blood in the body, which is pumped directly from the body into the funeral home’s connection to the local sewer system. (There has been at least one or two rumors circulated on the internet over the years claiming that blood removed from a body during an embalming is collected and then sent to a blood bank for donation purposes. This is definitely not the case. Blood banks accept donations only from people who are known to be entirely healthy.)

Then a variety of quasi-surgical procedures are under taken to assure a professional, cosmetic look for the body. Among these is a surgical, permanent closing of the mouth. A piece of surgical suture is used to tie the mouth closed through the lower jaw, and the suture is tied off in one of the deceased person’s nostrils. In addition, before this closure is made, a “mouth former” is sometimes inserted into the mouth – occasionally in place of teeth that are removed and disposed off during the procedure – so that the jaws have the look of being full and healthy.

This is but one of the many tricks of the trade procedures that embalmers may apply during their time with a body. (Another procedure that often raises eyebrows among activist is the cutting off of a body’s legs so that the body will fit into a traditional sized casket. If your loved one is taller than 6 feet 5 inches, you can bet that has been done. Yes, the feet are disposed of, rather unceremoniously, in the funeral home’s routine collection of trash that is hauled away by a city’s sanitation department.)

While the look of an embalmed body may be pleasing to the family and friends who will see the body at an open casket funeral, those who have ordered the embalming can rest assured that many man-made enhancements have been forced into the body to achieve that look. Embalming is anything but a natural practice.

How Much does Embalming Cost:

Embalming prices vary widely according to the funeral home one is using. In fact, it has sometimes been found to be a wise idea to compare funeral homes based on the price of the standard embalming service. In the United States, all funeral homes are required to make a “General Price List” available readily to all who inquire – even via the telephone. This feature of the funeral home business makes price comparisons fairly easy, and embalming is typically listed on the General Price List of most funeral homes. If it is not, then a customer can assume one of two things: the funeral home does not offer embalming service (a rare situation these days) or embalming is included as part of the funeral home’s “basic service fee” that it charges to all customers (more common than the previous scenario, but still rare, nevertheless).

Because prices for embalming vary so widely, we will not speculate on an average price in this article. Rather, we will simply share the experience of one family who ordered embalming service for a loved one’s body.

In our anecdotal case, the family paid nearly $1,800 for the embalming service. The General Price List said the funeral home charged $1,200 for embalming, but the embalming staff reserved the right to add an additional $600 in the event that a body was returned from an autopsy in a state that made embalming particularly difficult. In this case, the funeral home exercised that right after notifying the family just shortly before the final bill was presented for payment. The funeral director in this case told the family that the embalmer spent nearly 6 hours on this case, when a typical embalming takes just 2-3 hours. Based on that figure it seems that at least some funeral home customers can expect to pay $400 per hour for embalming services. For many, this amount is an outrage that would deter an order, but for others the price is worth it for the peace of mind of having their loved one’s body look nice for a funeral. In the case we are speaking of, the family was not fully aware of what the price of the embalming would be until they received the final bill and were, of course, shocked and disheartened at the large amount. The funeral director advised them in a friendly tone that the full amount must be paid at least 24 hours before the funeral services or the funeral might be delayed.

Is Embalming Ever Required:

Contrary to popular belief – and occasionally misleading statements uttered by those in the funeral home industry – embalming is rarely required by law. While there is constant lobbying pressure in place on elected officials across the United States to adopt laws that require embalming in more case the only laws currently on the books (as of 2014) the require the practice exist in a few states in which embalming is required before a deceased body can be transported either into or out of the state. Some activists have noted with interest, and a bit of cynicism, that cremation is not legally allowed unless there is a specific, written request from the deceased or from a family member. Meanwhile, embalming can be legally done at the order of just about anyone, be it a government official or a funeral director acting unilaterally. Skeptics have argued that this legal state may be the result of embalming being much more profitable than cremation.

In the vast majority of cases, embalming is required only as a matter of personal choice by either the deceased – in his or her written final instructions – or by the family. Simply put, families who want their deceased loved one to look his or her best in the casket at a funeral are best served by embalming. That, experts assert, is the only useful feature of embalming. An embalmed body will definitely have a more life-like, polished look than a body that in simply preserved in cold storage for a few days before a funeral. And, experts all seem to agree that, after about 72 hours a deceased body – even in cold storage – can be restored to a presentable look only through embalming. So, in general, if a family intends to have an open-casket funeral service more than three days after a death, embalming will typically be required to avoid providing funeral attendees with a very disturbing site. That said, if a funeral can be arranged within three days, then funeral directors can usually restore a body to its life-like look using simple make-up and other purely cosmetic techniques.

But even in cases in which a funeral is to be delayed for more than 72 hours, embalming is rarely – if ever – necessary. Open casket funerals are not a requirement, of course. Many families choose to conduct a funeral without a casket or even a body present. And others are fine with displaying a closed casket or a cremation urn at the funeral. In most of these cases, a family can quite reasonably substitute a set – or video production – of pictures in lieu of an open casket. And in still other cases, a family can arrange for an open casket visitation within three days of a death and then conduct a closed casket funeral just about any other time. It is important for consumers to recall that, so long as a body remains in cold storage, it will remain suitable for a closed casket service for many weeks. The issue – after about 10 days or so – may become one of paying the funeral home for the storage space. In most cases, cold storage is included in the funeral home’s basic service fee, but we emphasize the word “most,” and we caution the reader that there may be limitations to that service. It is likely that a funeral home will begin accessing extra fees if a body remains in cold storage for, say, longer than about 2 weeks.

It seems that the answer to our question we pose at the top of this section is this: no, embalming is hardly ever required, except to accommodate the desires of the family and friends who will be attending the funeral. In one particularly dramatic example, the family of a mentally ill man was opposed to the idea of embalming his body upon his death. But the man had several mentally ill friends who would be in attendance, and, when they heard of the family’s plans to skip embalming and host a closed casket funeral – or possibly to display simply a cremation urn at the funeral – they appealed desperately to the family for a change of heart. The superstitious outlook that went along with their mental illness caused them great worry that the man’s spirit would not be properly fit for resting unless his many friends could see his body in a preserved state one last time before a burial. Our of respect for these friends, the family decided to relent, and they paid for the embalming even though such an order went against their consumer judgement. Good intentions are often rewarded, of course, so this family was pleasantly surprised to find, as they prepared to pay the funeral home’s bill for the embalming, that word has spread among many others in their community of their reluctant decision to embalm. Accordingly, a collection had been taken unbeknownst to them, and they were happy to hear the news that the bill had been paid in full by an anonymous group of donors.

When is Embalming Necessary:

Aside from the few instances we have described above, embalming is “necessary” only when it is required by law. And, as we say, the laws vary according to the state, but, in general, the vast majority of states do not require embalming in any circumstance. And, in fact, a good portion of them explicitly make it a crime for funeral directors to state, or even imply, that it is a legal requirement. There are a few exceptions to these rules of thumb, however, and most of them involve the transport of human remains across state lines.

Activists warn consumers to remain vigilant for unscrupulous funeral directors or other death care industry professionals who may try to convince a family to hire an embalmer’s services for anything other than emotional needs. They note that the death care industry is rich with a history of forcing embalming upon its customers in unethical ways, and it is well within reason to expect that the industry will return to those ways if it is left unchecked by activists and legislators alike. The funeral home business is a very profitable industry, leaving its leaders with plenty of cash in their coffers to hire lobbyists to sway legislation in their favor the very moment their rivals in the funeral consumers activist crowd let their guard down. Consumers would do well to check with their state government or maybe even their local municipality to see what laws apply to embalming, and, if they discover that the laws are titled in favor of the funeral home industry, they might be doing themselves and their friends a service by becoming involved in the politics of embalming legislation. It may not be the most intriguing public issue topic there is – and it may even seem quite morbid and strange to become politicially active on such a matter. But it very well could become a worthwhile fight that will save grieving families a lot of money in their time of need.

Does Embalming Help Prevent the Spread of Diseases:

One bit of recent news that consumer activists are trying their best to spread to the world is that scientists are now almost universal in their claim that embalming does nothing to prevent the spread of diseases. In previous decades, it was assumed by lawmakers that embalming would be a public health benefit in cases in which a person died of a contagious, deadly disease. But research has studied this question closely of late, and there seems to be no significant evidence that embalming prevents the spread of disease. In fact, experts say, embalming does the opposite sometimes by putting the embalmers themselves at risk of contracting diseases from their “patients” as they do their work.