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.

Embalming  ….

SanitisesThe body becomes safe for handling and viewing when micro-organisms are made harmless.

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 mind.

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 mausoleum.

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 One?

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.

Environmental Issues

Does Embalming Cause Pollution of Burial Grounds or the Atmosphere?

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.


Funerals New Zealand
PO Box 10888
Wellington, New Zealand
Phone: 04 4737475
Fax: 04 4737478
Email: info@fdanz.org.nz