What Is Embalming? Why Would It Be Needed?

Embalming: what is Embalming?

Embalming in most modern cultures, is the art and science of temporarily preserving human remains to slow decomposition. Therefore ensuring the deceased still looks like themselves for public display at a funeral or for family viewings. The three goals of embalming are thus sanitisation, presentation and preservation (or restoration) of a corpse to achieve this effect. Embalming has a very long and cross-cultural history, with many cultures giving the embalming processes a greater religious meaning.

What is Embalming:

Funeral Plan Quotes
Funeral Plan Quotes

Embalming has been practiced in many cultures. In classical antiquity, perhaps the ancient culture that had developed embalming to the greatest extent was that of ancient Egypt, which developed the process of mummification. They believed that preservation of the mummy empowered the soul after death, which would return to the preserved corpse. Other cultures that had developed embalming processes include the Incas and other cultures of Peru, whose climate also favoured a form of mummification.

Embalming in most modern cultures is the art and science of temporarily cultures giving the embalming processes a greater religious meaning.

Embalming History.

what is embalming
Embalming slows deterioration.

Some of the best preserved bodies in the world are from Han dynasty in China. It was thought that a special liquid in which the bodies were embedded (solutions containing mercury and antimony salts among others), may have been of a certain influence. The real cause of the preservation—which started declining rapidly once the bodies were unearthed—was the very exceptional low temperature conditions.  This was due to the depths at which the tombs were located.  They were also under several layers of charcoal and clay, permitting ideal temperatures and humidity levels.  These were were maintained throughout the seasons for centuries.

These mummies are today stored in special refrigerated chambers which simulate the original conditions in which they were discovered to prevent further acceleration of putrefaction.

Embalming in Europe.

Embalming has become much more common in the more industrialised regions. It was attempted from time to time, especially during the Crusades, when crusading noblemen wished to have their bodies preserved for burial closer to home. Embalming began to come back into practice in parallel with the anatomists of the Renaissance who needed to be able to preserve their specimens. Arterial embalming is believed to have been first practiced in the Netherlands in the 17th century by Frederik Ruysch but his liquor balsamicum preservative was kept a secret to the grave and his methods were not widely copied.

Contemporary embalming methods advanced markedly during the American Civil War. Once again, this involved many servicemen dying far from home, and their family wishing them returned for local burial. Dr. Thomas Holmes received a commission from the Army Medical Corps to embalm the corpses of dead Union officers to return to their families. Military authorities also permitted private embalmers to work in military-controlled areas. The passage of Abraham Lincoln’s body home for burial was made possible by embalming and it brought the possibilities and potential of embalming to a wider public notice.

In 1867, the German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann discovered formaldehyde. Its preservative properties were soon discovered and which became the foundation for modern methods of embalming, replacing earlier methods based on alcohol and the use of arsenical salts.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries arsenic was often used as an embalming fluid but has since been supplanted by other more effective and less toxic chemicals. There were questions about the possibility of arsenic from embalmed bodies later contaminating ground water supplies. There were also legal concerns as people suspected of murder by arsenic poisoning could claim that the levels of poison in the deceased’s body were a result of embalming post mortem and not evidence of homicide.

Embalming is distinct from taxidermy. Embalming preserves the human body intact, whereas taxidermy is the recreation of an animal’s form often using only the creature’s skin mounted on an anatomical form.

Modern embalming is most often performed to make sure a better presentation of the deceased for viewing by friends and relatives.  Everything else being equal, an embalmed body will look better than one that is not embalmed and is putrefying.  A successful viewing of the cadaver is considered by many credible authorities to be helpful in the grieving process. It allows the mourners to form a memory picture of the deceased. Embalming has the potential to prevent mourners from having to deal with the rotting and eventual putrescence of the corpse.  This is important due to the stress that is often placed on hygiene. This view has been challenged, however, by authors such as Jessica Mitford, who point out that there is no consensus that viewing an embalmed corpse is somehow “therapeutic” to the bereaved. Also that terms such as “memory picture” were invented by the undertakers themselves, who have a financial interest in selling the costly process of embalming to the public. She also points out that in many countries, embalming is rare, and that the populace of such countries are still able to grieve normal Embalming is also a general legal need for international repatriation of human remains (although exceptions do occur.) Also by a variety of laws depending on locality, such as for extended time between death and final disposition or above ground entombment.

Terms for embalming.

The roles of a Funeral Director and an embalmer are different. A funeral director is a person who arranges for the final disposition of the deceased and who may or may not prepare (including embalming) the deceased for viewing (or other legal requirements). An embalmer is someone who has been trained in the art and science of embalming and may not have any contact with the family. However, many people fill both roles. The term mortician is becoming out-dated, but may refer either to a funeral director or to an embalmer, or both. Embalming training commonly involves formal study in anatomy, thanatology, chemistry, and specific embalming theory (to widely varying levels depending on the region of the world one lives in.) This is combined with practical instruction in a mortuary with a resultant formal qualification granted after the passing of a final practical examination and acceptance into a recognised society of professional embalmers.

Legal requirements over who can practice vary geographically; some regions or countries have no specific requirements. Additionally, in many places, embalming is not done by trained embalmers, but rather by doctors who, while they have the required anatomical knowledge, are not trained specialists in this field. Today, embalming is common practice in North America and New Zealand while it is somewhat less frequent in Europe. In some countries, permits or licences are required; in others it is performed only by medical practitioners, and the costs can be relatively high.

Instruments used for embalming.

As practiced in the funeral homes of the Western World (notably North America), embalming uses several steps. Modern embalming techniques are not the result of a single practitioner, but rather the accumulation of many decades, even centuries, of research, trial and error, and invention. A standardised version follows below, but variation on techniques is very common.

The deceased is placed on the mortuary table in the supine anatomical position with the head elevated by a head block. The first step in embalming is obviously to check that the individual is in fact deceased, and then verify the identity of the body (normally via wrist or leg tags). At this point embalmers commonly perform basic tests for signs of death, noting things such as clouded-over corneas, lividity and rigor mortisor by simply attempting to palpate a pulse in the carotid or radial artery. In modern times people awakening on the preparation table is largely the province of horror fiction and urban myth.

Any clothing on the corpse is removed and set aside and any personal effect such as jewelry is inventoried. A modesty cloth is sometimes placed over the genitalia. The corpse is washed in disinfectant and germicidal solutions. During this process the embalmer bends, flexes and massages the arms and legs to relieve rigor mortis. The eyes are posed using an eye cap that keeps them shut and in the proper expression. The mouth may be closed via suturing with a needle and ligature, using an adhesive, or by setting a wire into the maxilla and mandible with a needle injector, a specialized device most commonly utilized in North America and unique to mortuary practice. Care is taken to make the expression look as relaxed and natural as possible and ideally a recent photograph of the deceased while still living is used as a template. The process of closing the mouth, eyes, shaving, etc. is collectively known as setting the features.

The embalming process usually involves four parts:

1. Arterial embalming, which involves the injection of embalming chemicals into the blood vessels, usually via the right common carotid artery. Blood and interstitial fluids are displaced by this injection and, along with excess arterial solution, are expelled from the right jugular vein and collectively referred to as drainage. The embalming solution is injected with a centrifugal pump and the embalmer massages the body to break up circulatory clots as to ensure the proper distribution of the embalming fluid. This process of raising vessels with injection and drainage from a solitary location is known as a single-point injection. In cases of poor circulation of the arterial solution additional injection points (commonly the axillary, brachial or femoral arteries, with the ulnar, radial and tibial vessels if necessary) are used. The corresponding veins are commonly also raised and utilized for the purpose of drainage. Cases where more than one vessel is raised are referred to as multiple-point injection, with a reference to the number of vessels raised (i.e. a six-point injection or six-pointer). As a general rule, the more points needing to be raised, the greater the difficulty of the case. An injection utilizing both the left and right carotids is specifically referred to as a restricted cervical injection (RCI), while draining from a different site to injection (i.e. injecting arterial fluid into the right common carotid artery and draining from the rightfemoral vein) is referred to as a split (or sometimes cut)injection.

2. Cavity embalming refers to the replacement of internal fluids inside body cavities with embalming chemicals via the use of an aspirator and trocar. The embalmer makes a small incision just above the navel (two inches superior and two inches to the right) and pushes the trocar in the chest and stomach cavities to puncture the hollow organs and aspirate their contents. He/she then fills the cavities with concentrated chemicals that contain formaldehyde. The incision is either sutured closed or a “trocar button” is secured into place.

3. Hypodermic embalming is a supplemental method which refers to the injection of embalming chemicals into tissue with a hypodermic needle and syringe. This is generally used as needed on a case by case basis to treat areas where arterial fluid has not been successfully distributed during the main arterial injection.

4. Surface embalming, another supplemental method, utilises embalming chemical to preserve and restore areas directly on the skins surface and other superficial areas as well as areas of damage such as from accident, decomposition, cancerous growth or skin donation.

A typical embalming takes several hours to complete. An embalming case that requires more attention or has unexpected complications could take substantially longer. The repair of an autopsy case or the restoration of a long-bone donor are two such examples.

Embalming is meant to temporarily preserve the body of a deceased person. Regardless of whether embalming is performed, the type of burial or entombment, and the materials used — such as wood or metal caskets and vaults — the body of the deceased will eventually decompose. Modern embalming is done to delay decomposition so that funeral services may take place or for the purpose of shipping the remains to a distant place for disposition.


After the body is rewashed and dried, a moisturising cream is applied to the face. The body will usually sit for as long as possible for observation by the embalmer. After being dressed for visitation/funeral services, cosmetics are applied to make the body appear more lifelike and to create a “memory picture” for the deceased’s friends and relatives. For babies who have died, the embalmer may apply a light cosmetic massage cream after embalming to provide a natural appearance; massage cream is also used on the lips to prevent them from dehydrating.  The infant’s mouth is often left open a bit for a more natural expression. If possible, the funeral director uses a light, translucent cosmetic; sometimes, heavier, opaque cosmetics are used to hide bruises, cuts, or discolored areas. Makeup is applied to the lips to mimic their natural color. Sometimes a very pale or light pink lipstick is applied on males, while brighter colored lipstick is applied to females. Hair gels or baby oil is applied to style the hair of males; while hairspray is applied to style the hair of females. Powders (especially baby powder) are applied to the body to eliminate odors, and it is also applied to the face to achieve a Matte and Fresh Effect to prevent oiliness of the corpse. Mortuary cosmetising is not done for the same reason as make-up for living people. It is designed to add depth and dimension to a person’s features that lack of blood circulation has removed. Warm areas – where blood vessels in living people are superficial, such as the cheeks, chin, and knuckles – have subtle reds added to recreate this effect, while browns are added to the palpabrae (eyelids) to add depth, especially important as viewing in a casket creates an unusual perspective rarely seen in everyday life. During the viewing, pink-colored lighting is sometimes used near the body to lend a warmer tone to the deceased’s complexion.

A photograph of the deceased in good health is often sought in order to guide the embalmer’s hand in restoring the body to a more lifelike appearance. Blemishes and discolorations (such as bruises, in which the discoloration is not in the circulatory system and cannot be removed by arterial injection) occasioned by the last illness, the settling of blood, or the embalming process itself are also dealt with at this time. Some embalmers utilise hypodermic bleaching agents, such as phenol based cauterants, during injection to lighten discoloration and allow for easier cosmetising.


In the western world, men are typically buried in business attire, such as a suit or coat and tie, and women in semi-formal dresses or trouser suits. In recent years, a change has occurred and many individuals are now buried in less formal clothing, such as what they would have worn on a daily basis, or other favourite attire. Clothing worn can also reflect the deceased person’s profession or vocation: Priests and ministers are often dressed in their liturgical vestments, and military and law enforcement personnel often wear their uniform. Underwear, singlets, bras, briefs and hosiery are all used if the family so desires, and the deceased is dressed in them as they would be in life.

In certain instances a funeral director will request a specific style of clothing, such as a collared shirt or blouse, in order to cover traumatic marks or autopsy incisions. In other cases clothing may be cut down the back and placed on the deceased from the front to ensure a proper fit. In many areas of Asia and Europe, the custom of dressing the body in a specially designed shroud/funeral gown, rather than in clothing used by the living, is preferred.

A lesser known procedure of dressing the deceased is that, in many cases, the upper body clothing is cut up the back and placed over the deceased, or “draped” on the front of the body with the arms straight out. This is since the rigid state of the deceased makes it impossible to bend the arms to place them through sleeves in clothing. Popular culture often ignores this, showing zombies raised from the grave wearing fully intact clothing. A notable exception is the film The Crow which accurately depicts a man raised from the grave having his coat and shirt cut up the back.

After the deceased has been dressed, they are placed in the casket in form for the various funeral rites. The term casket is derived from older usage to refer to a “jewel box”, it is called a coffin when the container is anthropoid [a stretched hexagon]. It is common for photographs, notes, cards and favorite personal items to be placed in the casket with the deceased. Even bulky and expensive items, such as electric guitars, are occasionally interred with a body. In some ways this mirrors the ancient practice of placing grave goods with a person for use/enjoyment in the afterlife. In traditional Chinese culture, paper substitutes of the goods are buried or cremated with the deceased instead, as well as paper moneyspecifically purchased for the occasion.

Embalming chemicals.

Embalming chemicals are a variety of preservatives, sanitisers, disinfectant agents and additives used in modern embalming to temporarily delay decomposition and restore a natural appearance for viewing a body after death. A mixture of these chemicals is known as embalming fluid and is used to preserve deceased individuals, sometimes only until the funeral, other times indefinitely.

Typical embalming fluid contains a mixture of formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, ethanol, humectants, and wetting agents and other solvents. The formaldehyde content generally ranges from 5 to 35 percent and the ethanol content may range from 9 to 56 percent.

Specialist embalming

Badly decomposing bodies, trauma cases, frozen and drowned bodies, and those to be transported for long distances also require special treatment beyond that for the “normal” case. The restoration of bodies and features damaged by accident or disease is commonly called restorative art or demisurgery and all qualified embalmers have some degree of training and practice in it. For such cases, the benefit of embalming is startlingly apparent. In contrast though, many people have unreasonable expectations of what a dead body should look like, due to the unrealistic portrayal of “dead” bodies (usually by live actors) in movies and television shows. Viewers generally have an unrealistic expectation that a body going through decomposition should look as it did before death. Ironically, the work of a skilled embalmer often results in the deceased appearing natural enough that the embalmer appears to have done nothing at all. Normally a better result can be achieved when a picture and the deceased’s regular makeup (if worn) is available to help make the deceased appear more as they did when alive.

Embalming autopsy cases differs from standard embalming because the nature of the post-mortem examination irrevocably disrupts the circulatory system. This is due to the removal of the organs and viscera. In these cases, a six-point injection is made through the two illiac or femoral arteries, subclavian or axillary vessels, and common carotids, with the viscera treated separately with cavity fluid or a special embalming powder in a viscera bag. In many morgues in the United States and New Zealand, these necessary vessels are carefully preserved during the autopsy; in countries where embalming is less common, such as Australia and Japan, they are routinely excised.

Long-term preservation requires different techniques, such as using stronger preservative chemicals and multiple injection sites to ensure thorough saturation of body tissues.

Embalming for anatomy education.

A rather different process is used for cadavers embalmed for dissection by doctors and medical students. Here, the first priority is for long term preservation, not presentation. As such, medical embalmers use embalming fluids that contain concentrated formaldehyde (37–40%, known as formalin)/gluteraldehyde as well as phenol and are made without dyes or perfumes. Many embalming chemical companies make specialized anatomical embalming fluids.

Anatomical embalming is performed into a closed circulatory system. The fluid is usually injected with an embalming machine into an artery under high pressure and flow and allowed to swell and saturate the tissues. After the deceased is left to sit for a number of hours, the venous system is generally opened and the fluid allowed to drain out, although many anatomical embalmers do not use any drainage technique.

Anatomical embalmers may choose to use gravity-feed embalming, where the container dispensing the embalming fluid is elevated above the body’s level and fluid is slowly introduced over an extended time. Sometimes as long as several days. Unlike standard arterial embalming, no drainage occurs and the body distends extensively with fluid. The distension eventually reduces, often under extended (up to six months) refrigeration, leaving a fairly normal appearance. There is no separate cavity treatment of the internal organs. Anatomically embalmed cadavers have a typically uniform grey colouration, due both to the high formaldehyde concentration mixed with the blood and to the lack of red colouration agents commonly added to standard, non-medical, embalming fluids. Formaldehyde mixed with blood causes the grey discoloration also known as “formaldehyde grey” or “embalmer’s grey”.

Embalming in Religious practices

There is much difference of opinion amongst different faiths as to the permissibility of embalming. A brief overview of some of the larger faiths positions are examined below.

  • Most branches of the Christian faith generally allow embalming. Some bodies within Eastern Orthodoxy profess an absolute ban against embalming except when required by law or other necessity, while others may discourage but do not prohibit it. In general the decision on embalming is one that is dictated by the personal preference of the family rather than a specific church policy.
  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not discourage or prohibit embalming. Often, due to the custom of church members dressing the deceased, embalming is given preference.
  • Members of Iglesia ni Cristo allows embalming for the view of their loved ones. It forbids autopsy and cremation because they believe the body of the deceased is sacred and should be cared for with respect. They dress and groom the deceased as they looked in life. The preferred method is arterial embalming, in which formaldehyde is injected into the body.
  • Many authorities hold that Hinduism does not accept embalming. In practice, this is not an adamant prohibition, and embalming for those of Hindu faith is known to occur.  This is generally for repatriation to India or the South Pacific and for the purposes of viewing and funerary rites at the family home prior to final cremation. Traditionally, a dead body should be cremated before sunset, and embalming is neither common nor widespread.
  • Some Neopagans generally discourage embalming, believing it unnatural to disrupt the physical recycling of the body to the Earth in the mistaken belief that embalmed bodies do not decompose. They encourage the use of green graveyards, where the body is placed in a biodegradable casket and buried under a tree instead of a tombstone.
  • Members of the Bahá’í Faith are not embalmed. Instead, the body is washed and placed in a cotton, linen or silk shroud. The body is to be buried within one hour’s journey from the place of death, if this is feasible. Cremation is also forbidden.
  • Zoroastrians traditionally hold a type of sky burial within a structure known as a Tower of Silence.  The body is exposed to weathering and predation to dispose of the remains, and thus embalming the body is contrary to their funeral designs. This is due to the Zoroastrian belief that the dead body is unclean.  Therefore the pure elements of earth and fire should not be allowed to come into contact with it. This practice is not universally performed any more, and many Iranian Zoroastrians perform traditional cremations and burials instead.
  • Traditional Jewish law forbids embalming, and burial is to be done as soon as possible. Preferably within 24 hours. However, under certain circumstances, burial may be delayed if it is impossible to bury a person immediately, or to permit the deceased to be buried in Israel. Guidance of a Rabbi or the local chevra kadisha (Jewish Burial Society) should be sought regarding any questions, as particular circumstances may justify leniencies. Notably, the Biblical Joseph was, according to the (Genesis 50:26) embalmed in the Egyptian fashion as was his father Israel (Jacob) (Genesis 50:2).
  • Muslims are required to be buried within 24 hours of death, if possible. Embalming is forbidden. The body is washed and prepared specifically for interment. This procedure is to be done according to the last will of the deceased, usually by a close relative of the deceased who is of the same gender. He or she is then dressed in a plain white burial shroud (for women, the hair, ears and neck are covered as they were in life, preserving her dignity before men who are not closely related; men are buried in their ihram clothing, or pilgrim garb, as worn during the Hajj in Mecca). Muslims believe that the spirit remains with the body from death until after burial, which is the reason for same-day burial, as well as the aforementioned procedures. The body is treated with the same care and respect as in life so as to not cause undue stress to the deceased. For the same reason, cremation is also forbidden. Prayers and readings of the Qur’an are spoken aloud to give comfort to the deceased, and the body is not left alone even for a time following the burial, during which the deceased is buried (preferably without a casket) on his or her right side, facing Mecca.
  • In Islamic countries, a plain white burial shroud called a kafans, consisting of 3 pieces of white cotton clothing, is used to wrap the body.

Notable embalmings

  • Perhaps the most famous embalmed body of the 20th century is that of Vladimir Lenin.  He continues to draw crowds decades after his death in 1924 and is seen on public display in Lenin’s Tomb.
  • The botched embalming of Pius XII (1876 – pope 1939–1958) by a charlatan doctor—which only sped up the rate of decomposition.  This led to his body turning black and his nose falling off while lying in state, and the body disintegrated in the coffin. The Swiss Guards stationed around Pius XII’s body were forced to change shifts every ten to fifteen minutes since the body’s odor caused some guards to pass out. The doctor who performed the embalming had also taken photos of the Pontiff in his death throes and intended to sell them to tabloids. The Italian tabloids refused to buy the photos, and the doctor was banned from entering the Vatican City-State by John XXIII.  He furthermore prohibited any photography of a deceased Pope until the body is properly vested and laid out.
  • Pope John XXIII, (1881 – pope 1958-1963) body is on display in an altar on the main floor of the Basilica of Saint Peter.  It was exhumed from the grottoes beneath the main altar and has retained an extremely well preserved state. If a body’s remains do not decompose, contrary to expectations, it is often treated as a miracle. However, the case of John XXIII’s body did not enjoy the same acclamation, as it was held to have been due to embalming and adipocere formation.
  • Saint Pope Pius X, (1835 – pope 1903-1914) body is in a crystal coffin, in the Chapel of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary. On February 17, 1952, Pius X’s body was transferred from the crypt of the Vatican grotto. The pontiff’s body dressed in pontifical robes, while the face and hands are covered with silver. He lies within a glass and bronze-work sarcophagus for the faithful to see. Papal physicians had been in the habit of removing organs to aid the embalming process. Pius X expressly prohibited this, however, and none of his successors have allowed the practice to be reinstituted.
  • Murdered civil rights activist Medgar Evers was so well embalmed that a viable autopsy was able to be performed on his corpse decades after his death and this helped secure the conviction of his killer.
  • Famous Russian surgeon and scientist N. I. Pirogov, was embalmed after his death in 1881. He was embalmed using the technique he himself developed. His body rests in a church in Vinnitsa, Ukraine. In contrast to the corpse of Lenin, which undergoes thorough maintenance in a special underground clinic twice a week, the body of Pirogov rests untouched and unchanging.  It is said that only dust has to be brushed off of it. It resides at room temperature in a glass-lid coffin (while Lenin’s body is preserved at a constant low temperature).
  • Abraham Lincoln was embalmed after his assassination in 1865. In order to prevent anyone stealing Lincoln’s body, Lincoln’s eldest son Robert called for Lincoln’s exhumation in 1901 to be buried in a concrete vault in the burial room of his tomb in Springfield, Illinois. Fearing that his body would have been stolen in the interim, Lincoln’s coffin was opened, and his features were still recognizable, thirty-six years after his death.
  • Rosalia Lombardo, who died at age two on 6 December 1920 and was one of the last corpses to make it to the Capuchin catacombs of Palermo, Sicily before the local authorities banned the practice. Nicknamed the ‘Sleeping Beauty’, Rosalia’s body is still perfectly intact. Embalmed by Alfredo Salafia, she is in a glass case, looking very much like a surreal doll.
  • Georgi Dimitrov was embalmed and placed on display in the Sofia Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum. After the fall of Communism in Bulgaria, his body was buried in 1990 in the Central cemetery of Sofia.
  • Mao Zedong was embalmed after he died of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis on September 9, 1976. Ho Chi Minh and Kim Il-Sung likewise were embalmed for public display as part of the personality cult common in Communist states.
  • Klement Gottwald, who died in 1953, just five days after attending Stalin’s funeral in Moscow on 9 March, was embalmed and displayed in a mausoleum at the site of the Jan Žižkamonument on Vítkov hill in Prague. However in 1962 due to a botched embalming, the body was decomposing and had to be removed and cremated.
  • Eva Perón was embalmed by Dr. Pedro Ara ordered by her husband Juan Perón. The body was preserved to look like it was in a sleep-like state. The procedure worked and the body showed no signs of decomposition when Eva was interred at her final resting place many years after the initial procedure.
  • Kemal Ataturk whose sarcophagus lies at Anıtkabir in Ankara, Turkey. Only two people are authorised to view his body: the General of the Armed Forces and the Physician in charge of checking the state of his body.
  • Ferdinand Marcos was embalmed in Hawaii upon his death. His body was flown home and is currently on display in Batac, Ilocos Norte.

This article on embalming is condensed from Wikipedia and may have been updated there

What is embalming?