Bereavement Services - Information about Embalming

What is Embalming?

Embalming is often associated with the ancient Egyptians, whose beliefs required the thorough preservation of their leaders.  Embalming is defined as the preservation of a body from decay, through arterial injection of embalming fluid. The process is generally referred to as hygienic treatment; it is used to improve the visual appearance of the body, and to prevent deterioration in the period leading up to the funeral, which would make the viewing of the deceased by relatives a less distressing event. The current use of the word “embalming” is misleading but some religions expressly forbid embalming, but it is more usual for modern faiths to accept embalming as a matter of personal choice, or permit it for the purposes of repatriating the deceased to his or her country of birth.

Is Embalming Necessary?

A qualified, professional embalmer will advise that embalming can improve the appearance of the deceased, explain the process and assess whether an effective result can be achieved. There is no legal requirement for a body to be embalmed and in many areas, embalming is not routinely carried out.
It is often thought that embalming will disinfect the body, protecting the living from the risk of infection however; there is no evidence to suggest that a body poses a risk to the living, except if he or she died of a highly infectious disease which requires reporting to the health authority, embalming is strictly forbidden.

In woodland burial sites and environmentally sensitive cemeteries, the burial of embalmed bodies may not be permitted. If you do not plan to view the body at the undertaker’s chapel of rest, then there appears to be little benefit to be gained from embalming.

Reasons to Embalm

Protection - By this we mean the protection of all who come into contact with the deceased. Primarily family and friends if they visit their loved one in the Chapel of Rest, also staff at the funeral company. Protection comes from the embalming process by way of the fact that the body is hygienically treated and this kills bacteria and viruses, therefore greatly reducing the risk of cross infection.

Presentation - The Funeral Director will always lay out the deceased looking as presentable as possible to give families and friends visiting their loved one the best possible lasting final memory and to help with the grieving process. Embalming greatly improves the look of the deceased helping the Funeral Director to provide the best possible presentation.

Preservation - Long term preservation of the deceased is not generally required as the time between death and the funeral is usually only a few days. Embalming helps to maintain the deceased in as good a condition as possible during this period. Therefore, if family members are visiting their loved one prior to the funeral, then embalming will help reduce the risk of cross infection and make the experience for the families as pleasant as possible during these difficult circumstances.

Environmental issues

In some burial schemes, such as woodland burial, all chemicals may be prohibited. This restriction may apply to embalming fluid as well as to horticultural chemicals. Although research into the specific effects of embalming fluids on soil organisms and air quality is limited, environmentalists will generally disapprove of embalming.

Increased concern for our environment has resulted in a new generation of 'green' embalming fluids becoming available. These products are less harmful to the environment than formaldehyde based products, however, it can be argued that it is more environmentally friendly not to use embalming products at all.

Those who have concern that embalming fluid may pollute the environment have a right to stipulate that this is not carried out on their body after death. Similarly, executors or nearest relatives making funeral arrangements can specify that embalming is not carried out on the deceased.

Do I have a choice?

Yes. Because there is no legal requirement for embalming to take place, it should be the family's decision whether or not their loved one should be embalmed. The Code of Ethics issued by the British Institute of Embalmers states that "the clients informed consent, preferably in writing, must be obtained" before embalming takes place.

Funeral packages and pre-payment plans can vary, depending on the funeral director, and embalming may involve extra costs on the funeral account. If you are unsure, you should ask your funeral director what is included in the funeral package or plan, and make it known to them if you oppose embalming.

Although many families acknowledge the benefit of professional embalming, there are many that comment on the unnatural or waxy appearance that can sometimes result from embalming. If you are opposed to embalming, it may be advisable to expressly forbid it.

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