When you think about embalming, you might think back to ancient Egypt where the practice first started thousands of years ago. Egyptian priests would take out the dead person’s organs, remove all moisture from the body, and finish by wrapping it in hundreds of yards of linen. What was left was a mummy that, depending on the embalmer’s skill, might be preserved for hundreds of years.
But embalming isn’t just for mummies and ancient Egyptians anymore. Many people choose to be embalmed after death or have their loved ones embalmed. Embalming can slow down the rate of decomposition, and it's usually done to allow for an open casket during funeral services. When embalming is done well, it can make the deceased look close to how they looked in life, which is comforting to many surviving relatives.
The embalming process has changed quite a bit since 6,000 BC when Egyptians stored organs in canopic jars to be buried with the dead. Here’s a step-by-step explainer of the modern-day embalming process.
How Embalming Works: The Step By Step Process
Step 1: Preparation
Before the embalming can begin, the embalmer has to prepare both themselves and the deceased body. In order to be an embalming specialist, you have to go through special training to earn a license. Then you must follow strict OSHA requirements for handling dangerous chemicals and human remains.
First, the embalmer will suit up in a surgical gown, apron, shoe covers and gloves. The body is placed on the table, and the preparation begins. The embalmer washes the body and sets the person’s facial features by placing cotton in the mouth to make them look more lifelike and natural. They might also use plastic eye caps to keep the deceased’s eyelids closed and metal wiring to secure the jaw in a natural facial expression.
The embalmer will also gently stretch and massage the person’s limbs to keep them from locking up. If the person had facial hair when they died, the embalmer can shave it now as well.
Step 2: Arterial Embalming
Now it’s time to inject the special embalming fluid into the deceased person’s arteries.
The embalmer will use a scalpel to make a small slit in the common carotid artery and internal jugular vein. They’ll place a tube filled with embalming chemicals like formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, methanol, ethanol, and phenol into the arteries to pump throughout the body using a machine. This fluid slows down decomposition by dehydrating body tissues, making it harder for bacteria to eat away at the body. Another tube will allow the blood to drain out of the body and the chemicals get pushed through.
Step 3: Cavity Embalming
Once all the blood is removed and the arteries are sewn back up, the embalmer must work on the body cavity. Any other liquids or gases left in the body are suctioned out of the body and replaced with more embalming fluid. Finally, this last incision is closed up with a small plastic device, and the embalming is technically complete.
Step 4: Final Touches
Even though the body is now completely embalmed, many embalmers will prepare the deceased for funeral services. That includes washing and styling hair, applying a light lawyer makeup, and dressing them in clothing provided by surviving loved ones.
In ancient Egypt, embalming was done to preserve a person’s body for the afterlife. These days, many people choose embalming to make the deceased look more lifelike and familiar in their casket.
However, it’s important to note that many people choose not to be embalmed after death. In fact, some religions even forbid it. At the end of the day, embalming a personal choice, not a requirement. Hopefully, this article will help you decide if embalming is right for you or your loved ones after death.