Of all the processes and procedures associated with treating a body after death and before a funeral, embalming is the least understood by the general public.
This guide explains what embalming is and why you might consider it for your body after death or, where possible, leave instructions behind for your body not to be embalmed.
Who is this guide for?
What is embalming?
Simply put, embalming is a way of slowing down the natural process of decomposition and creating a temporary ‘life-like’ and relaxed appearance after death. The extent to which this is possible will depend on the cause of death.
Embalming is sometimes called 'hygienic treatment'.
No organs are removed. Organs are removed if the person is an organ donor. Organs may also be removed for post mortem examination purposes, but will be put back inside the body cavity at the end of the examination.
Is it mandatory?
No, embalming is not mandatory. But there are a couple of exceptions:
A funeral director's fee for embalming is currently around £120.
* Some funeral homes have decided not to embalm Covid-19 or suspected Covid-19 cases.
Can my body still be visited without being embalmed?
Yes. Loved ones can still visit, touch and kiss you if you aren't embalmed.
Your body will be kept in cold conditions between viewings to slow the decaying process. The longer you are kept in these conditions, however, the more likely there will come a point that the funeral director will say that viewing is no longer advisable.
When not embalmed, and depending on the funeral service or funeral plan purchased, your body will be washed and your hair brushed. You will be dressed in a funeral gown, in your own clothes provided by loved ones, or left in the items of clothing you died in. If you want a direct cremation funeral, for example, it is likely your body will not be washed or prepared in any way.
For more information about what you can wear to your own funeral, click here.
Why might I choose to be embalmed?
It can be both a practical and an aesthetic choice.
Embalming temporarily improves the condition of the body and restores colour tone to your skin. This can considerably improve the experience for loved ones should they want to visit you before the funeral. Embalming also means they would have a little more time to spend with you .
Embalming can be especially helpful if death is due to an accident and the body would it would otherwise be too distressing to view without the reconstructive and cosmetic skills of an embalmer.
4 reasons why you might choose not to be embalmed?
Embalming is an invasive procedure. This is what is needed to make you look alive in death:
A modesty cloth is placed over the genital area, and the body is cleaned and massaged to loosen stiffened limbs. Eyelids are glued or spiked caps placed on the eye to keep the eyelids shut. Lips are sutured on the inside to keep the mouth closed. Blood is drained from the body through the veins and replaced with a chemical solution of formaldehyde-based chemicals through the arteries, which are reached through a small incision outside the body or through an open body cavity. The body is washed again. Cosmetics may be applied.
There is a possibility that embalming may not restore the skin tone to the one you had in life. In some cases it can be markedly different. It has been known for some who were ordinarily pale when they were alive to look like they have just returned from a Caribbean holiday! This can be quite a shock for the visitors.
Also, some people notice a chemical odour around an embalmed body.
Both of these potential side-effects can cause additional distress to loved ones when they are already coping with their loss.
You may choose not to be embalmed on religious grounds.
Both Judaism and Islam prohibit the practice of embalming unless it is a legal requirement. Other religions have a neutral stance.
If you are planning on having a green burial, you need to be aware that natural woodland and meadow burial grounds will not normally accept embalmed bodies. This is due to the toxicity of the chemicals used and the harm it can cause the surrounding ecosystem.
What you need to do if you object to being embalmed
Funeral directors will often embalm as a matter of course. Some prepaid funeral plans may also include an embalming service. If embalming is not a mandatory for the reasons already stated above, it's important you let loved ones know your wishes. Tell them you don't want to be embalmed or document them in this free Funeral Wishes planner.
Embalming is a sensitive subject that some people feel uncomfortable discussing. However, if you have specific questions or would like to know more about it, we suggest you contact The British Institute of Embalmers.
For more information on embalming, contact The British Institute of Embalmers
☏ 01564 778991