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What Is Embalming And Is It Necessary?

Embalming is a term for the preservation of a person’s remains after death, either for a short or more extended time.

The practice of embalming has been recorded in history as far back as the Egyptians and their Mummies, which we know were well preserved for thousands of years.

Over the years since the Egyptians, the procedures of embalming have changed many times into what we know today as modern embalming.

Embalming is not usually required by law in New Zealand and is an optional procedure that may be used to delay the onset of decomposition for as long as is required, be it a week or much longer.

Full, modern embalming comprises of two processes. The first, called atrial embalming, consists of replacing all the blood in the body with an embalming solution. The solution is usually made up of some form of aldehyde, usually formaldehyde, often with other additives depending on the situation.

An incision is usually made into the Carotid artery and the Jugular vein, low on the neck. Embalming fluid is pumped into the artery under pressure and blood is drained from the Jugular vein to completely replace the body’s blood with the embalming fluid.

Alternatively, the Femoral artery and vein (in the groin) are sometimes used for the same procedure. Once this is achieved, the veins are tied off and the incisions are stitched.

The second part of the process is called Cavity embalming and is done with an instrument called a trocar, which is a hollow metal tube, about the size of a large straw, with a sharp point at the end and holes in the sides, near the end, to allow fluid and gas to enter the trocar.

An incision is made close to the navel and the trocar is introduced into the body cavity. The trocar is connected to a vacuum source and is used to aspirate gas and fluids from the cavity and the organs.

Starting in the upper part of the cavity, the trocar is punched into the organs such as stomach, pancreas etc, one at a time and any gas and fluids are removed. The trocar is then removed and cleaned and reinserted to do the same process in the lower cavity, aspirating the intestine, bladder etc and in the case of females, the uterus.

The trocar is then removed and a second trocar is used to gravity feed embalming fluid into the organs, using the same holes that were punched by the first trocar.

At this point the incision is closed, either with stitches or a trocar screw. And the embalming process is completed.

As you can see, full embalming is quite an invasive process which can take between three and six hours, so it is not cheap either. It is necessary if a body is going to be repatriated to another country or if the funeral is going to be extended for a protracted period, but if the objective is to keep things in good condition for a few days for an open coffin funeral or viewing, there are cheaper alternatives.

It is worth asking the question, “exactly what are we trying to achieve here”, as it is very easy to be convinced to have much more work done that you really want or need.

There are several variations on the process of full embalming that can offer a satisfactory solution if the objective is only to retain the body in viewable condition for a week or so until the funeral.

Keeping the body chilled in a mortuary fridge (funeral directors can have them at their branches, but not all do) or keeping the body chilled at home are both a practical alternative to embalming, depending on the circumstances and the timing of the funeral.

The process of chilling a body at home involves keeping the room as cool as possible and packing the body in ice or dry ice. If you are using ice, salt ice is colder and lasts longer. It is worth using a waterproof cover for when the ice melts in case a bag becomes punctured. You will also need to budget on replacing the ice as it melts.

Dry ice is more effective and can be obtained from industrial gas suppliers but is more expensive and can require ten to fifteen kilos per day.

On a side note, if you are using dry ice, make use that you keep constant ventilation in the room that you are using. Dry ice is frozen carbon dioxide and as it “melts” it gives off the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in substantial quantities.

Carbon dioxide, while not poisonous as such, will not sustain life, and lack of ventilation is a hazard for anybody who enters the space and can result in loss of consciousness and even death in extreme cases. Maintaining adequate ventilation is really important, but can be as simple as leaving the window open.

It is also possible to use variations of full embalming, as mentioned above, either on their own or combined with cooling.

Light or partial embalming may omit atrial embalming or use a modified cavity embalming process. It may also include a process of flushing the circulatory system but not using embalming fluids.

The decision as to what process should be used in each case, can be determined by the deceased before his/her death or falls to the executor or whoever is organising the funeral in conjunction with the undertaker.

For many years, embalming was the default option offered by funeral directors but I am pleased to say that it is slowly becoming less prevalent ,and sensible conversation about the options are now becoming much more prevalent.

Any good undertaker will have no problems with these conversations and should give you an honest appraisal of the options and the effectiveness and cost of each.

Some of the factors to be considered are the timing of the funeral, the season, the availability of a suitable refrigeration unit or the ability to provide a cool environment in the home situation and the relative costs involved.

There is plenty of information on this subject on the internet, though much of if refers to the USA. A good reference book written for New Zealand conditions is “Better Send Off” written by Gail McJorrow. It covers all aspects of a DIY funeral an explains what is involved in each step. It is available to be downloaded at for a donation of $10.

I strongly recommend this book as a practical guide to all aspects of doing funerals differently and involving families in the process to do as much or as little as they feel comfortable with. We get a lot of feedback from our customers to reinforce that involvement in the process at whatever level is a definite aid to working through grief, especially if that experience is shared by close family and/or friends.

This can include washing the body after death and clothing it, dressing and application of cosmetics and hair styling, assembling the coffin and placing the body inside it, completing the forms that are required and transporting the body to the funeral or crematorium. A full list of what is possible is outlined in the book.

Posted: Monday 6 May 2024


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