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What is Embalming?

By Kathy Hawkins
Updated May 21, 2024
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Embalming is the process of preserving a corpse, typically so that it can be viewed at a funeral ceremony. Generally, when embalming does not occur within several days of a person's death, their body will begin to decompose. To ensure that this does not happen, preserving chemicals will be used so that the body of the deceased can be viewed at an open-casket funeral.

The process of embalming has a very long history, dating back to the Egyptian process of mummification. Though their techniques were quite different from those used today, the effect was the same — to preserve an individual's body after death. In case of the ancient Egyptians, they believed that the spirit would return to the body after death, so it must remain in good condition. To preserve the corpses, they covered bodies in a drying chemical called natron, and then wrapped them in linen sheets.

Today, embalming is done by injecting chemicals directly into the bloodstream to preserve the corpse's appearance. The most commonly used chemicals for embalming are formaldehyde and ethanol. A combination of these two chemicals is sufficient to preserve the body for a short time; to keep it in good condition for a longer period, you would use a solution made up almost entirely of formaldehyde.

Modern embalming came about during the American Civil War, in which many soldiers died in battle far away from their families. The families wanted an open casket funeral for their loved one, and so preserving techniques were approved so that the body would look as close to normal as possible for the funeral.

There are several steps involved in modern embalming. First, the embalming fluid is injected directly into the deceased's blood vessels, and pushed through the body with a mechanical pump. Next, the internal organs are hollowed of their contents and filled with embalming fluid. The chemicals are then injected beneath the skin wherever necessary, followed by a final surface embalming on injured areas of the body.

One of the most famous embalmed corpses today is Russian communist leader Vladimir Lenin, whose embalmed corpse is on display at the Red Square Mausoleum in Moscow. Curators at the Mausoleum say that the corpse is very well-preserved, and should last for at least another hundred years.

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Discussion Comments

By anon354126 — On Nov 05, 2013

I am trying to find out what would happen to the body of an elite dead pregnant woman in Ancient Egypt. I am curious if they would embalm mother and child, or if upon discovering a baby in the removed uterus, they would have a special way of burying the child with the mummified mother. There is almost no easily accessible scholarship on this! Why would this be a taboo subject? I'm sure pregnant mummies have been found, since there are so many hundreds of thousands of mummies.

By anon335144 — On May 18, 2013

Why is there packing around my deceased relative's neck and chest and why is there a type of birth mark coloration coming up towards her chin?

By anon328389 — On Apr 03, 2013

What are the 10 most common tools used in the prep room?

By anon274652 — On Jun 12, 2012

What happens to the blood when it is drained?

By anon256643 — On Mar 22, 2012

What tools do you use for embalming?

By anon252198 — On Mar 04, 2012

What happens when embalming is not done correctly?

By anon134591 — On Dec 15, 2010

I am a licensed embalmer in the state of MA and would like to answer some of the questions here:

A person could have bruising anywhere within hours after death. Many factors such as manner of death, time between death and embalming, natural diseases, etc.

The hospital usually doesn't provide info about drugs or bodily conditions after death. FDs and embalmers can view the death certificate and see the cause of death to help determine the proper course to take while doing the embalming.

Undertakers are not given much info at all regarding the deceased, except contact info and background for obits.

Embalming is affected by many factors, all of which must be determined by the embalmer on a case by case basis. Manner of death, preexisting conditions (i.e. diseases), physical condition of deceased are just a few of the factors. Therapies like chemo do a great deal of damage to human tissues and must be repaired by the embalmer, as well as swelling which can be reduced with chemicals.

No body parts are removed during the embalming process! The exception is an autopsy case, in which the organs are usually removed during the procedure and placed in a bag, then reinserted into the body cavity after embalming. The embalmer removes this bag, adds cavity fluid, and proceeds to embalm the remains using a six point injection which is each carotid artery, two brachial arty(arms), and two iliac arteries (legs, lower trunk.) There is not much vascular system left, so each appendage must be embalmed individually. It is a very painstaking process, but very rewarding when done properly.

I take great pride in my embalming skills and it's definitely *not* a job for those with weak constitutions!

A pregnant woman would be embalmed following normal procedures. Embalming is *not* required by law, except certain instances, i.e. delayed viewing, transportation of remains to another state or country, or when there's a definitive risk to the public health. Embalming is not required for cremation cases or immediate burial without viewing.

By anon76063 — On Apr 08, 2010

what would happen to a pregnant woman and her baby's corpse or body?? would the baby remain inside? and embalmed too?

By anon72538 — On Mar 23, 2010

Would a person have bruising around their neck after they died if they have only been dead several hours.

By anon36601 — On Jul 13, 2009

I am curious to know are there any funeral homes in the new york metropolitan area that will take in a complete novice to train? An internship with minimum pay scale. Really interested in learning a service that is truly needed.

By talk2me — On Feb 05, 2009

How long can a person lay in state without being embalmed? If there is a cremation planned, would you need to be embalmed prior?

By anon11818 — On Apr 23, 2008

An undertaker finds out very little about a person before receiving them into their funeral home. Most of the time, they may only know their name and possibly any infectious diseases they had. The undertaker may also not know how the person died until they get to the hospital or sight of death. The undertaker, themselves, will check for pacemakers in the case of a cremation.

By anon2734 — On Jul 23, 2007

would under taker have to be informed about how much medication a person had in their system when being collected from hospital etc?

By anon2127 — On Jun 29, 2007

Are the intestines and other parts removed for embalming?

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