Embalming, an essential service provided by funeral directors,
is frequently misunderstood. Many people associate embalming with
ancient and primitive cultural practices and have misgivings about
its relevance, value and purpose today.
Without embalming, nature begins to take its course very soon
after death. The embalming process prevents the
body decomposing between the time of death and the funeral, making
interaction with and viewing the deceased safe.
Embalming enables everyone connected with the funeral -
family, friends and professionals - to take part in rituals with no
unpleasantness or embarrassment and without risk to their own
health, whatever the cause of death.
Prior to death, the deceased may have been bedridden for some
time, and may not have been bathed properly for several days.
In addition often the cocktail of chemicals given prior to
death masks the commencement of decomposition.
The deceased is transferred back to the mortuary
after death. There they are embalmed, showered,
nails clipped, hair styled, gentlemen are shaved and women may be
made up if this is how they were normally presented.
The deceased is then dressed in the clothing supplied
by the family and placed in the casket.
What does embalming involve?
Blood and bodily fluids which often hasten decomposition if left
in the body are removed, the vessels and cavities disinfected and a
light preservative distributed through them. The actual
process is similar to an exchange blood solution.
Sanitises: The body becomes safe for
handling and viewing when micro-organisms are made
Preserves: Embalming allows adequate time
for relatives and friends to grieve and say goodbye. It enables the
person who has died to be taken home or to a Marae. It ensures that
there will be no problems of odour or deterioration.
Presents: Embalming restores the person's
natural appearance, giving mourners a much better memory picture.
This brings a sense of relief and comfort and helps peace of
Is Embalming Compulsory?
It is the recommended way of holding someone until the
time of their funeral. Refrigeration (when available) is
possible, but it may cause dehydration and discolouration, and it
will not minimise the risk of infection to those coming into
contact with the deceased.
If a body is being repatriated to another country,
embalming is a requirement made by airlines. Embalming
is also required should the deceased be interred in a
How Long Does it Take?
Anywhere belong two and five or six hours, depending on the
condition of the body, and the requirements of the family. In
some cases it may be necessary to extend the embalming procedure
over several days, especially if reconstruction is required.
What Happens After a Post Mortem (Autopsy)?
In cases of a sudden or unexplained death a post mortem
examination is carried out by a pathologist under the
jurisdiction of a Coroner. Vital organs are examined
and small tissue samples taken for later study. Unless permission
has been given by the family for them to be retained, all other
body parts are returned.
After the body is released to the funeral director of the
family's choice, the pathologist's incisions are reopened, and each
area of the body is embalmed via the arteries which supply it.
Vital organs as are treated separately, and the incisions securely
closed. Once the person has been dressed, there are usually no
visible signs of the procedure. If there have been serious
injuries, some rebuilding of facial features may be required - or
the injuries can be covered with a dressing.
Can Family Members Participate in Preparing Their Loved
Not in the actual embalming procedure (and there are Health
& safety restrictions to being in a mortuary), but family
members may, if they wish , dress the person, apply makeup,
style hair and assist with placing them in the casket.
Does Embalming Cause Pollution of Burial Grounds or the
The reason why many people reject embalming is that they are
concerned about adding chemicals to the soil. What is overlooked in
this case is that many toxic chemicals are used to prolong life and
to ease pain. Not removing them is leaving chemicals in the body
that can potentially harm the environment.
Aldehydes (the principal active ingredient of most embalming
fluids) consist of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen - common elements of
many substances. They are neutralised on contact with the
soil, and during cremation they are totally destroyed, becoming
carbon dioxide and water. Studies of ground water
in cemeteries, and air samples from crematoria have shown that
there is no cause for concern.