Tuesday, April 17, 2012

P is for

Preparation of the Body for Burial

Today I have a special guest blogger, Jim Wright, who I met on this crazy A to Z blog challenge.  As a former embalmer, he is going to explain the process of preparing a body for burial.  Here's a little bit about Jim...

Jim Wright has had an on again, off again relationship with the funeral industry since 1970 when he was hired on as an apprentice embalmer. Since that time he worked in funeral homes and embalming services in Houston, TX, Denver, CO and Birmingham, AL. After a stint in the Navy he hired on with the largest Pathology laboratory in the South, where he worked for twenty years. Now retired, he and his Companion, Zeek live in Amman, Jordan with their cat Umm Khalil where he writes and travels.

Take it away, Jim...

As soon as practicable after death, the preparation of the body known as embalming, begins. The deceased is transported from the place of death to a preparation room in the funeral home, much like a surgical suite.
Embalming is essentially the temporary preservation of the body to allow for arrangements, transportation and viewing of the deceased’s remains. Cosmetics and, if necessary, restoration are used to complete a pleasing “memory picture” of the dead person.

Each state has various laws for the regulation of embalming. The Federal Trade Commission and funeral industry regulators have additional “laws” or rules. I will not address those in this post.
Embalming requires extensive knowledge in the disciplines of anatomy, chemistry, biology, microbiology, and pathology as well as skills in cosmetology and restorative art.

The body is placed on a stainless steel preparation table and positioned for optimal viewing. An embalming report is begun, making note of any identifying scars, wounds, tattoos, incisions, etc. The report identifies the deceased, notes any property accompanying the body and details the procedures and chemicals used. This report can be critical in the case of future litigation.

The body is then bathed and washed in a disinfectant solution. Catheters, IV needles, bandages etc are removed and the skin, mouth, eyes and other orifices are cleaned with a disinfectant. The joints are moved about and the muscles are massaged to relieve rigor mortis. If shaving is required it is done at this point to avoid razor burn.
The features are set prior to injection. Small “eye caps” with a small amount of stay cream (to deter dehydration) are placed under the lids. On occasion a bit of glue may be required to ensure complete closure of the eyes.

The mouth is closed by using a special injector gun. Afterwards, a mouth former is placed behind the lips to assist in the formation of a more natural appearance. Again, a bit of stay cream is used to prevent dehydration.

At this point, arterial injection is started. An artery, usually the carotid, is raised and a stainless steel tube inserted for the injection of the formaldehyde based fluids. Many fluids have a dye additive, giving the remains a warm, pinkish glow. As the pressure builds, the fluids are able to penetrate the vascular system, skin, muscles and organs, and restoring a more natural color to the tissues. A vein, such as the jugular is raised and a drain tube inserted. This tube is opened periodically to relieve the pressure and release the displaced blood. When the injection is complete, the tubes are removed, the vessels tied off and the incisions are sutured and sealed with a special chemical.

Following injection, cavity treatment is carried out by aspirating the hollow organs. This is accomplished by use of a trocar (a very long needle) inserted just above the navel that punctures the stomach, bladder, intestines, lungs, etc. A stronger formaldehyde cavity fluid is then introduced to complete the disinfection and preservation of the abdominal and thoracic cavities. The incision is then sutured or closed with a trocar button.The anus and vagina may be packed with cotton or gauze at this point to prevent leakage.

Once the embalming process has been completed, the body and hair are washed again. If any restoration is required, such as masking injuries or sores or rebuilding features, it will be performed at this point. Cosmetics are applied to the hands and face and the hair is arranged according to the wishes of the family. The true art of the embalmer is evident in the application of the cosmetics. Proper application will give a more life-like appearance, leaving the mourners with a pleasant and lasting memory picture. Clothing chosen or provided by the family is put on the body. This generally includes underwear, socks or stockings, and shoes. The body is then carefully placed into the casket for viewing. Any adjustments needed for clothing, hair and cosmetics are carefully made at this point.

Here's a short video from National Geographic on embalming.

So, now that you know the scoop, what do you think of embalming?  Did you know that it began during the Civil War so that bodies could be preserved on their way home?

Thanks Jim!


  1. It sounds like a very noble and respectful profession, getting bodies ready for their final viewing. I'm sure what embalmers, like Jim, do offer a lot of comfort to the grieving families.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. My daughter said last night, "Ewww, I could never do that job!" And I replied, "Aren't you glad that somebody can do that job?" She thought about it for a minute and agreed.

  2. Great article, thanks for sharing, Jim :)

  3. Nice post. This will come in handy in the future.

  4. This is very interesting to read. I admit the only "knowledge" I have of the embalming process came from watching Six Feet Under!
    Great to meet you, Jim!

  5. Wow! There's a real art and science to embalming. I had read it gained popularity after the death of Lincoln.
    But this confirms my decision to be cremated.

  6. Thanks so much everyone, for the kind comments. And, a big thank you to you Pamela for offering me the opportunity to hopefully dispel some of the 'horror mystique' about embalming and funeral service. Perhaps one day, we will discuss the attitudes toward death and the burial customs here in the Middle East.

    1. I'd love that. You are more than welcome to guest blog. Heck, after this A to Z challenge, I don't think I'll have any more to say:) Well, at least on the topic of death.

  7. I really liked Six Feet Under too!
    I would rather not deal with embalming for myself or anyone I know. I don't like the "final viewiing" notion. Every time I have been to one of those, I was really taken at how un lifelike the body seemed. I would rather hold on to my memories.
    I was very interested in the article though. Fascinating process! Thanks for writing it, guest author Jim.

    1. It's funny but I got into a discussion with someone at my kids' school today. He used to "freelance" embalm. He kind of grew up in the funeral industry. Well, his career ended when he prepared his mother's body a couple of months ago. He was brought in because they weren't getting her face right.
      The idea of people I know looking at me when I'm dead totally creeps me out. I can hear the comments in my head--"her hair isn't right" "oh, they put way too much make up on her." That kind of thing.

  8. I'm an atty representing embalmers who got cancer and the families of those who died from cancer due to exposure to formaldehyde. Plz call my cell: 1-800-279-6996 or email me at josephsantoli@aol.com with any questions. Jos. Santoli, Esq.


Comments are welcome and appreciated!