Embalming is the art and science of preserving a human body after death to delay decomposition.
This practice goes back thousands of years. The Egyptians had elaborate rituals for their pharaohs that included embalming, believing the soul would return to the body, but only if it could recognize the body it belonged to.
In the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe, embalming became an essential part of scientific progress. Demand began to grow in the 1800s, partly because the increasing accessibility and popularity of long-distance travel meant people were more likely to die far from home.
The practice of embalming, not just for research but for burial, first crossed the Atlantic during the American Civil War. Embalmers would follow battles and set up their tents, preserving the bodies of fallen soldiers so they could be transported by train back to their families in the north.
In 1865, Abraham Lincoln’s embalmed body was viewed publicly for two weeks as it traveled from Washington, DC to Springfield, Illinois. The public began to see this as an acceptable way to care for, and even honour, their dead.
In the process of embalming, blood is drained from the body and replaced with formaldehyde-based chemicals. Next, an incision is made in the lower part of the abdomen and a sharp surgical instrument is inserted, puncturing the organs in the chest and abdomen to drain liquid and liberate accumulated gas. More chemicals are then injected into the organs, and the incision is sutured.
According to “Grave Matters” by historian Mark Harris, the rise in popularity of embalming in America led to our modern funeral industry. Families were always capable of washing, dressing, and burying their dead. But when the demand for embalming rose, a trained undertaker was needed for this rather complex procedure.
There is no legal requirement to embalm a body. However, funeral homes are private businesses, and as such, they get to decide their individual policies and requirements. Some funeral directors act as if embalming is assumed, or necessary if the body is to be viewed. They might imply it’s required for public health and safety. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Canadian health authorities, embalming provides no public health benefit. It is the embalmer who must take precautions when handling the toxic chemicals, which then pollute the land in which the bodies are buried.
Embalming can be helpful when a body has been badly injured and restorative work is needed before a viewing can take place. It is a legal requirement when a body is transported across international borders, or by airplane.
Refrigeration is usually all that is necessary to ensure your loved one’s body is being preserved until cremation or burial. At home, this can be accomplished by an open window or packing ice around the body.
Many question the practice of embalming, including the body being set in a “lifelike” condition for display. According to The Funeral Consumers Alliance, today only two countries commonly embalm their dead: Canada and the United States.
Written by Margaret Verschuur