What is embalming?

Embalming has become an increasingly common part of funeral plans over the years. But what exactly is it? And should you choose it for your loved one?

Embalming is a process that uses chemicals to preserve the body of someone who’s died, by slowing down the effects of decomposition. It can make the person look closer to how they looked when they were alive and, in some cases, it can take away signs of illness or injury.

People choose embalming for lots of different reasons

Here are some of the circumstances where embalming might be the right choice for you.  

You want to have more time to view your loved one 

You can still view your loved one without them being embalmed – in a church, chapel of rest or at someone’s home. But after about a week, you'll start to notice some of the natural changes that happen to our bodies after we die. Embalming preserves your loved one's body, giving you (and others) more time to visit them.

You’re having trouble deciding whether to view them

If you’re not sure whether you want to see your loved one, embalming gives you longer to decide, and usually means that you can visit them right up to the day of the funeral

You want your loved one to look closer to how they did when they were alive

This can be comforting for anybody viewing their loved one, either privately, or at a funeral with an open coffin. But it can be especially helpful if the person who’s died had visible signs of illness, which standard embalming can often remove. 

Your loved one’s body was injured when they died

For example, if they died in a car accident. When this happens, specialist embalmers can often (although not always) repair or reconstruct the person’s body or face, or mask the injuries they suffered. Again, this makes them look as close as possible to the way they did when they were alive. The process is sometimes called post-mortem surgery. 

The funeral is not taking place right away

This can happen for lots of reasons – a common one is that people are coming from abroad to pay their respects. If this is the case, and people would like to view your loved one, embalming will give everybody a little more time to do this. 

The person who’s died needs to be transported overseas

This can either mean that they are being flown into or out of the UK. This usually happens because the person is being repatriated (returned to their home country) or because they wanted their funeral to happen in a particular place. In these circumstances, the law says that the person must be embalmed. 

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You do not have to choose embalming

It’s not legally compulsory (unless your loved one’s body is being transported overseas), and there’s no health or safety reason to embalm a person’s body. So you should never feel pressured into agreeing to it. Your options for your loved one’s funeral will also be the same, whether they’ve been embalmed or not.

You can still view your loved one 

Funeral directors will go through many of the same steps as they would when embalming somebody – things like washing their body, brushing their hair, and dressing them – so your loved one will look peaceful when you view them. Their body will then be kept refrigerated between viewings; you just will not be able to keep visiting them for as long as you could if they had been embalmed. 

You can still hold a burial or cremation

Whether your loved one has been embalmed or not. In fact, eco-friendly funerals, and burials in natural or woodland burial grounds, are only allowed if the person has not been embalmed. This is because the embalming solution can damage the soil.

A body that has not been embalmed is usually completely safe

Embalming does not ‘disinfect’ the body. It simply delays the natural changes that happen to our bodies after we die. If a person’s body is not embalmed, the bacteria inside the body will start to break it down and you will eventually notice some changes in the way the body looks or smells. This usually happens after about a week but the exact timing will depend on a few things, including:

  • how the person died

  • how long it took for their body to be transported to the funeral home

  • whether they were taking certain medications

  • environmental factors, like whether their body was somewhere hot for a while before before it was transported

But it’s important to remember that a body cannot cause any harm or risk to anyone, unless the person died from a highly infectious disease. If that’s the case, then an embalmed body will not take away that risk. In fact, in these cases, embalming is not allowed. 

Embalming has been part of funeral practices for thousands of years

It was common in ancient civilisations, but less popular in Europe from the Middle Ages until the 1700s, when embalming became a more widespread option again. This was partly thanks to an increase in long-distance travel, which meant more people needed to be transported back home for burial. In the UK, the modern embalming process has been in its present form since the early 20th century.

What happens during an embalming?

When a person is embalmed, their bodily fluids are removed, and replaced with a mixture of chemicals, water and colourants. This mixture preserves the dead body by killing the bacteria that would normally start to break cells down. It also makes the person who has died look closer to how they did when they were alive – for example, by giving their skin some colour.

Trigger warning:

We’ll now go into more detail about the process. If you’d rather not read about it, you can skip ahead to a few final things it’s worth knowing about embalming, like how much it might cost.

Here are the different steps that happen during the embalming process: 

  1. The embalmer washes the person’s body and massages it to get rid of any tenseness caused by rigor mortis (a natural stiffening process that happens a few hours after someone dies). 

  2. They shave any facial hair that the person did not usually have when they were alive. So if they always had a moustache or a beard, that would stay. 

  3. They close the person’s eyes and mouth using various techniques, and they might put some cotton padding into their cheeks to give them a more natural expression. 

  4. They make a small cut and find a strong artery and vein – often the common carotid artery and the jugular vein, which are near the collarbone. 

  5. The embalmer puts tubes into the artery and the vein. The artery is then used to pump the embalming fluid around the body, and the tube in the vein lets the blood in the body drain out. This process is called arterial embalming and, once it’s finished, the embalmer closes up the cut. 

  6. The embalmer massages the person’s body again with a soapy sponge to spread the embalming fluid out evenly in the body. 

  7. Unless the person who’s died was an organ donor, the organs are kept inside the body during and after embalming. The embalmer pierces the organs, drains their fluids and fills them with embalming solution, before closing up the piercing. This process is called cavity embalming. 

  8. The embalmer then washes the person’s body one last time and brushes their hair.

  9. Throughout all of these steps, the person’s genitals are kept covered. 

  10. The person’s face is moisturised. Then, ahead of anybody seeing them, the embalmer dresses them, styles their hair, and applies some make-up if they need to. 

And here are some final things worth knowing about embalming

The process usually takes around two to four hours

The time frame will depend on the different techniques the embalmer uses, and how complicated the process is. For example, if the embalmer is repairing or concealing a big injury, the process will take longer. 

The funeral director does not always do the embalming

Some funeral directors are qualified for embalming. But if they’re not, they can often bring in an outside embalmer from the British Institute of Embalmers to do the work. If a person has died in a way that has badly injured their body, then a highly specialist embalmer will often take on the job. 

The embalmer might ask for a photograph of the person when they were alive

So that they can try and make them look as close to the photo as possible. They will brush and style the person’s hair, and sometimes use make-up, too. 

The effect of embalming usually lasts about a week

But there are some things that could affect this, like whether the body is injured, or how long it took to be transported to the funeral home. After that week, the funeral director will need to take some extra steps to keep the body in a good condition. But in most cases, the effects of embalming will last long enough for you to say goodbye in the way that you want to. Your funeral director should let you know if there’s anything you need to be aware of. 

The cost of embalming in the UK ranges from £75 to £200

But that will depend on which funeral director you choose, and how much work they need to do during the embalming process. Remember that embalming is always optional, unless your loved one’s body is being repatriated. So you do not have to choose it (or pay for it) if you do not want to. 

There are some circumstances where embalming is not allowed

You will not be able to have your loved one’s body embalmed if:

  • they died from one of a range of highly infectious diseases

  • they practised a religion that forbids embalming, like Judaism or Islam, and there is no legal reason for their body to be embalmed

  • they’re having an eco-friendly funeral or being buried at a natural or woodland burial ground, where embalming chemicals could damage the soil.

Article reviewed

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