The old adage “opinions are like a-holes, everyone has them and they all stink” is seldom appropriate but certainly applicable when it comes to embalming. What is to follow is my own stinky opinion on where embalming fits into our movement. If you just want the Cliff’s Notes version, here it is:
I see a place for embalming in the green movements so long as it fulfills two criteria: It is only done with “eco-fluid” and it is done to fill a family tradition.
Housekeeping: Embalming is never required by law. It is a process of replacing bodily fluids with chemicals to preserve the body, slowing decay. The length of time a body will “last” after embalming falls squarely into “it depends”. Embalming is usually only required “by company policy” for public visitations with most companies. Embalming, like many funeral practices varies in frequency based on regional customs.
Now that we’ve got those little details out of the way, let us look more closely at the why’s of embalming. Many an article has been written about the early days of modern embalming and how it started (spoiler: Civil War to get the dead back home) so I’m not compelled to rehash the historical intricacies here. What it boils down are three principle reasons:
Safety/sanitation: The transmission of communicable diseases from the dead to the living is nothing close to what an ardent embalming supporter will tell you. That said, having the dead laying around the house for extended periods of time, no matter what the cause, is ill advised. In the Western world, there are very few communicable diseases that are transmitted from the deceased to the living. Most common contagions don’t last in a host that has died. With all the death certificates I’ve signed, I would say, anecdotally, that most people die from things like congestive heart failure (CHF), sepsis, and pneumonia. Most frequently, these last two are upshots of cancer. In other words: You, or the crows in your neighborhood, are not going to get West Nile from an unembalmed Aunt Nellie.
Preservation: This is intimately tied into the sanitation of the body. Reducing the microbes that facilitate decomposition extends the length of time that the deceased will be presentable. In Washington State, you need to do something to slow this process within 24 hours of death. Embalming is a mighty effective little trick. A body that has been embalmed “hard” can have a shelf-life of a Twinkie and the cuddle coefficient of granite. The other way this can be done is to cool the body down; with refrigeration, dry ice, or ice you can very effectively extend the time the person is presentable.
Appearance: It is in this last point that I see a strong purpose for embalming. Making people look good is something that embalming does well to prepare people for their last hurrah. Embalming fluid has pigments in it and when someone dies, they look a little peaked. The blood has moved away from the surface of the skin and they look… dead. Embalming brings back some of the lost color. The process also repairs any visible damage to the person. Hospitals can be just as mean to people at the end of life as a car wreck, so cleaning up tubes and bruising is a part of that process. Autopsy repair is also included in the embalming process. Autopsies are not gentle. While you don’t need to embalm someone post-autopsy, the people who are highly trained and well skilled in autopsy repair are embalmers. If a home funeral practitioner tells you that caring for your post-autopsy loved one will be a healing process, they are either deranged, or they know that you are the type of person that finds healing in raw, grizzly tasks. I could be wrong on this note, and I’m sure someone will take me to task. Personally, I’m not recommending this to anyone without signed indemnification paperwork.
Here is where the green movement jumps in and says “But death is a natural part of life, and the beauty of a peaceful death and that transition is something that needs to be embraced. It shouldn’t be an antiseptic process to make someone look like they are sleeping.” Yep. I think you’re right people. I think that the process of death and moving through the grieving process can be far better handled through the thoughtful washing and preparation of your loved one as they head to their point of final disposition. People who embrace the care of their loved one should be encouraged and guided. Embalming should be discouraged…
Unless it is your tradition or culture.
And that is where we come back to using eco-fluid for a family tradition. We in the green movement are so fast to shoot down the practice of embalming because of its horrific effects and adverse impacts on our planet that sometimes we forget to look at what families need to transition though their loss. As a funeral director, I couldn’t sit across the table from a Catholic Latino family who wants to transport to some village outside of Mexico City for a two day viewing and service with a graveside, and say “Well now, have you thought about the fact that we can use dry ice….” What?! It is not practical. It is not their tradition, and ultimately, it would not give them the experience that would honor their dead. For some families embalming and the type of presentation that it provides is integral to the healing and the cultural norms and status of the family.
I think that the funeral industry has been selling the embalming Kool-Aid for so long that the fumes are getting to them. Meanwhile, in the greener pasture, some in the green movement have developed such an absolutist attitude that it has become verboten to even consider it. While the circumstances under which we can justify and use the embalming are small, I think we in the movement need to recognize and embrace the acceptable areas for the application. As with any discussion, this is one that will change with the times and the technology and if history serves, this discussion, ironically, will not die.