This is probably the most often asked question of a funeral director.
Embalming and or some type of preservation, has been recorded in history as far back as the Egyptians. Back in those days, only the wealthy were embalmed or mummified, as it was known then. And history has shown that the Egyptian mummies were well preserved for thousands of years. Over the years the procedure has changed many times to what we now know as modern day embalming.
We use embalming today for two primary reasons--to allow adequate time between death and burial to observe social customs such as visitations and funeral services, and to prevent the spread of infection. Small cosmetic touches are often added for aesthetic reasons.
Modern embalming now consists primarily of replacing the blood and gases from the body with a disinfecting fluid. Small incisions are made in either the carotid or femoral artery and the jugular or femoral vein; the disinfecting fluid is injected through the carotid or femoral artery, and the blood is drained from the jugular or femoral vein.
If an autopsy is being performed, the vital organs are removed and immersed in an embalming fluid, and then replaced in the body, often surrounded by a preservative powder. If an autopsy is not performed, the embalmer aspirates fluids out of the body cavity by making a small incision near the navel and aspirating the bodily fluids. In most cases embalming is not required by law.
1) Why do we embalm?
Embalming is primarily done to disinfect and preserve the remains. Disinfection is important for all who have to handle the remains, and for the public safety of our communities. In the years gone by, deaths due to Typhoid Fever, Malaria and other highly contagious diseases, put funeral directors and others who came into contact with the remains at a very high risk of contracting the same disease. Secondly, it has been a tradition to have a period of visitation. This is known as the wake or calling hours. Friends and family gather to view the body and pay tribute to a family member or friend that has died. We gather to console the family on their loss, and to express sympathy to them. Without embalming, the body may become un-viewable within a short time. There are constant chemical and physical changes going that change the looks and other qualities that we are accustomed to seeing. Embalming acts as a hindrance to this, and gives us the time needed to pay respect and express our sympathies.
2) How is embalming done?
When the body arrives at a funeral home, there are a series of steps before the embalming is complete.
First, funeral home personnel lay the remains on a stainless steel or porcelain embalming table, not unlike those used for an autopsy. They then remove all of the clothing and either clean them for return them to the next of kin or dispose of them. Next, funeral home personnel carefully inventory any jewelry or glasses.
There are several methods of closing the mouth. The prime consideration is to have the lips meet naturally.
A licensed embalmer cleans the surface of the body with a disinfectant spray or sponging solution. Next, the body is positioned and rigor mortis (the stiffening of muscle tissue due to chemical change) is removed by flexing, bending and massaging the arms and legs. Then the arms and legs are moved into a suitable position, usually with the legs extended and arms at the sides. To begin the embalming process, which is the removal of blood, and replacing it with a formaldehyde based fluid, a small incision is usually made on the right side of the lower neck. It is at this position that two of the largest circulatory vessels are located. The carotid artery and the jugular vein.
Incisions are made in both vessels, and a tube connected to the embalming fluid pump is placed into the carotid artery, another tube is placed into the jugular vein, this is called a drain tube. The basic theory is to pump embalming fluid into the artery, and this will cause the blood to return through the veins and flow outside for disposal. Approximately 3 gallons of a mixture of fluid and water are circulated through the remains for thorough disinfection and preservation to take place. In most cases, this will be the only point of injection of the embalming fluid. There are times when clots and other factors stop the flow of fluid through out the whole system, and at these times, other points of injection are necessary in order to do a complete and thorough embalming. There are many factors which go into the process, which cannot be explained here due to space limitations, but some of the factors that the funeral director must assess before embalming are the mode of death, the weight of the person, the general overall condition of the person, any disease associated with the death, etc. These factors determine the types and strengths of fluids used, and the type of embalming necessary to complete the task. Many fluids have a slight dye added to them, which gives the body a pinkish glow, and also acts as a guide for the funeral director, making it visible for him to see the fluid as it travels through the body. This type of embalming is known as arterial embalming.
The next step, called cavity embalming, is the application of full strength fluid to the internal organs of the remains. A small incision is made just above the navel, and a long needle called a trocar is placed inside the abdominal and thoracic cavities of the remains. The funeral director aspirates both the abdominal and thoracic cavities. Aspiration is the removal of blood and other bodily fluids, through suction. A suction pump, either water or electric powered is used to remove these fluids. The trocar is then attached to a gravity fed system, which caused full strength fluid to be put into each organ, causing a more through disinfection and preservation. All incisions are then sutured closed.
The embalmer then washes the remains with cool water, often adding a soapy, germicidal solution containing bleach to kill viruses and bacteria. The fingernails are then cleaned using solvents to remove any stains and other chemicals might be used to remove scaling on the hands and face. The hair is washed.
Hairdressing is normally done after embalming has been completed.
Any hair stubble is shaved with a razor. Facial hair and any visible nose hair are removed from all bodies, including those of women and children who may have excess facial hair because of medications they received, or because they have downy hair on their upper lips and cheeks. Ear hairs are sometimes removed and any unsightly facial hairs are removed or trimmed. Care must be exercised with beards and mustaches, since once accidentally removed, they can be difficult to properly replace.
The fifth and final step is dressing and casketing using the clothes provided by the family. It is common to use a full set of clothing, including underwear, socks or stockings, and sometime even shoes if so desired. Once dressed, cosmetics may be applied to the face and hands. Usually a special cosmetics are used, although store bought cosmetics may be used also. It is through the proper application of cosmetics, that a more life-like presentation will be made. Too much or too little cosmetics have a definite affect on the appearance.
The final step in the preparation of the remains is to place the body in a casket. Adjustments to clothing, hair and cosmetics are made. This final step is usually very time consuming and must be done properly. This is the result of all the other work combined. The funeral director positions the head and hands in a realistic position, and finishes by evaluating the overall appearance before the family is view their loved one for the first time since the death occurred.