This is probably one of the most popular question a funeral director gets asked.
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", as it was known then. 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 in either the carotid or femoral artery and the jugular or femoral vein; 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. Most bodies in the USA are embalmed, though it is not required by law in most cases.
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. This is known as the wake or calling hours. 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 amount 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, funeral home personnel lay the remains out on a stainless steel or porcelain embalming table, not unlike those used for an autopsy. They then remove all of the clothing off the remains, and either clean and return them to the next-of-kin or destroy them as they would do with any bedding that accompany the remains. Next, funeral home personnel carefully inventory 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.
There are several methods of closing the mouth. The prime consideration is to have the lips meet naturally. If the mouth is closed too loosely, the funeral director cannot produce a pleasant look, and if the mouth is closed too tightly, the area under the nose puckers, giving the upper lip a distinctly unnatural expression, sometimes appearing to scowl at the mourners. The funeral director will occasionally widen the lower lip to improve a face's appearance.
Step 2: Preparation
The funeral director cleans the remains surface with a disinfectant spray or solution by sponging it onto the remains. Next, the funeral director positions the remains. He relieves rigor mortis (the stiffening of muscle tissue due to chemical change) by flexing, bending 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 usually made on the remains right side of the lower neck. 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 times when clots and other factors stop the flow of fluid throughout the whole system, and at these times, other points of injection are necessary in order to do a complete and thorough embalming. 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 funeral director 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 funeral director, 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 called a trocar is placed inside the abdominal and thoracic cavities of the remains. The funeral director aspirates both the abdominal and thoracic cavities. Aspiration is the removal of blood and other bodily fluids, through suction. A suction pump, either water or electric powered is used to remove these fluids. The trocar is then attached to a gravity fed system, which caused 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 funeral director then washes the remains with cool water, often adding a soapy, germicidal solution containing bleach to kill viruses and bacteria. He or she then cleans the fingernails, uses solvents to remove any stains on the remains, and applies other chemicals to remove scaling on the hands and face. Blood in the hair is removed with washing and chemicals. The funeral director then washes the hair, funeral directors may do this either before or after embalming. Hairdressing is normally done after embalming has been completed.
Any hair stubble on the remains is shaved with a razor. Facial hair and any visible nose hair are 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. Ear hairs are sometimes removed and any unsightly facial hairs are removed or trimmed. Funeral directors must be careful with beards and mustaches, since once accidentally removed, they can be difficult to properly replace.
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 funeral director 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 funeral director 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 also. This is the true art of the funeral director. It is through the proper application of cosmetics, that a more life-like presentation will be made. Too much or too little cosmetics have a definite affect on the appearance of the remains. Proper coloring 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 funeral director 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.