For years, embalming has been a point of great interest for people. Let’s get one point of contention out of the way before we get any farther. Embalming is never required by law. So what is embalming, why do we embalm people, and why is it such a point of contention? Let’s look at it.
What is it?
Embalming is the replacement of bodily fluids with a preservative solution. Historically this has been done with formalin (formaldehyde) solutions. Available today are alternatives that are not formaldehyde based that can be equally effective. The process also includes the disinfecting of the body and preparation for visitation by setting the features of the deceased so that they are more visually appealing.
Why do we do it?
We embalm for many reasons. The part of the law that many people will refer to when they say that embalming is necessary is actually a regulation. WAC 246-500-030 says “Funeral directors, embalmers, and others assisting in the preparation of human remains for final disposition must refrigerate or embalm the remains upon receipt.” The reason for this is simple: refrigeration and embalming serve to slow the decomposition process. That’s it. That’s why there are regulations in place. It is unsanitary to leave deceased things around at room temperature.
But there’s more. Most traditional funeral homes will tell you that it’s company policy to require it for visitation. We don’t require it for visitation because we think you need options. Embalming fluid contains pigments. In addition to disinfecting and slowing decomposition, it enhances the appearance of the deceased by returning color to their face and hands. Even with embalming, the deceased don’t look like they did in life. Sometimes, they don’t even look like the same person. Washed out color and sunken features can be upsetting to some people while for others it can be validation of a closing chapter.
Another reason for embalming is that if you own a crypt, it may be a requirement of the mausoleum. Again, that’s not a law. That’s a company policy that your cemetery has established, and it is within their rights as the property owners.
If there has been an autopsy or a traumatic accident, it is highly recommended that some form of embalming and reconstruction take place. While we can’t forbid you from seeing them in that condition or require that you have to do it before seeing your loved one, we can tell you that after these events, it is highly recommended that you have some type of preparation.
Where did this ritual come from?
The Civil War. It was the first conflict that technology met up with the need to transport the dead back to their families and home cemeteries.
What are the environmental impacts?
Like many environmental debates, the effect of embalming fluid on the environment can be debated. Most embalming is associated with burial, and as such, when the body and casket deteriorate, that fluid is leached into the soil. The amount of fluid that is used in a typical embalming is about three liters. Those that believe that the impact is minimal will point to a few things. One is the minimal amount of fluid that is used relative to the millions of gallons of water that flow through the soil of a cemetery. They will also point to the fact that there haven’t been any conclusive studies to show that there is a detrimental effect of embalming fluid on the ecology.
The flip side of the argument is that there are some studies that have shown that formaldehyde contributes to the development of cancer and that any level of this substance permeating the habitat – streams, forests, and drinking water is simply unacceptable.
What is the Elemental stance on embalming?
It is our opinion that if embalming is to take place, it should be done with eco-friendly fluids. To families that have a tradition of visitations with embalming, this is the best option.
It may not make the choices easier to hear “it’s up to you”, but the truth is that your comfort and need for closure can only be assessed by you and your family. Some families have zero need to see their loved one a last time. Some have a cultural imperative, and want them to look their very best for their last big day. Whatever your tradition is, we can just make sure that your wishes are carried out.