A Closeup Look at the Process and History of Embalming

You have options available to you when it comes to the preparation of your remains upon your death. Most people in the United States do elect to have their bodies embalmed in what oftentimes is called the “traditional” way. The use of the word traditional in regard to chemical embalming is something of a misnomer in the United States. The reality is that the average individual possesses little accurate information about the embalming process in this day and age or the history of embalming. This article is presented to provide you candid and sometimes explicit look at the embalming process. It also provides a brief history of embalming. Armed with this information, you’re in a better position to make decisions about what you want done with your remains when you pass on.

The Embalming Process Today

The embalming process utilized in funeral homes in the United States and many other countries around the world today involves not just the process of putting preservatives into the body but it involves some other attendant practices as well. When remains arrive at a funeral home, the first step that is taken is the cleaning of the body.

Depending on how long a person has been dead when remains arrive at a funeral home, rigor mortis will need to be broken down. Rigor mortis is a state that occurs as soon as four to six hours after death. Rigor mortis is recognized by the stiffening of a body. Rigor mortis doesn’t last indefinitely and a body eventually will pass out of that state. However, in order to move ahead with the embalming process, rigor mortis must be “broken down.” This is accomplished through a process of essentially firmly massaging the limbs of a body until the remains become more pliable.

Once these two processes are completed, the actual embalming of the remains occurs. The embalming process itself commences with the opening of the carotid artery at the clavicle. This is accomplished by incising the skin and opening up the specific artery. It is at this juncture through which the embalming fluids will enter into the body. The jugular vein is opened in a similar manner. Blood and other fluids will drain through the opening of the jugular as the embalming fluids flow into the body.

As a reader may have noted, the term “embalming fluids” rather than “embalming fluid” is used in this discussion. This is intention because a typical embalmer will utilize more than one type of fluid in what fairly can be called an embalming cocktail. For example, an embalmer might use a combination of fluids to preserve a body that includes:

  • Formaldehyde
  • Chromatech
  • Metaflow
  • Water

Formaldehyde is the primary preservative oftentimes used in the embalming process. Chromatech and Metaflow are proprietary products that compliment the primary embalming fluid selected for a case.

These fluids are blended in what typically is a cylindric tank, which is the embalming machine. The fluid mix flows from the tank into a thin metal pipe known as the arterial tube, the end of which inserts into the opened carotid artery.

As the embalming fluids are pumped into the body, the blood and other fluids flow from the opened jugular and travel into what best can be described as a small trough designed into the embalming table and then into a drain connected to a pipe that conveys the blood into a biohazard container for appropriate disposal.

The embalming process is no completed once the veins have had all blood removed and are filled with preservatives and associated fluids. What technically is known as visceral embalming occurs next.

In very basic terms, visceral embalming involves entering into each of the body’s organs with a device known as a trocar. With the trocar, a body is pierced at a location slightly above and to the left of the belly button. (The various organs are best accessible through this entry point.)

With the trocar and a connected tube, each organ is pierced, remaining fluids are drained through the trocar and tubing and ultimately down into the biohazard container. Once this is accomplished, each organ is filled with the embalming mixture previously pumped into the veins.

The heart, brain, and lungs typically are not included in this process because they are embalmed via the blood system. If the lungs are filled with fluid for some reason, they might need to be subjected to visceral embalming.

The openings created to undertake the embalming process are then sutured closed. The body is then cleaned once more to eliminate any evidence of the embalming process. The body is then ready for cosmetic preparations, which typically involves more than the mere application of makeup.

Central Embalming and Preparation Facilities

Although there remain some independently owned family funeral homes in business today, many funerals homes at this time are part of what fairly can be called large chains. Some of these large funeral home enterprises buy up family owned operations and keep the original name of the home, giving the impression that the facility is operated by the same folks who have served the community for years. Indeed, family members may remain employed with the corporate funeral home company.

One change that has become commonplace in the funeral industry in the 21st century is the centralization of embalming and body preparation. In other words, embalming and body preparation is not done on-site at a particular neighborhood funeral home. Rather, all of this is undertaken at what is akin to a production line setting at a central facility. .

History of Embalming

A comprehensive examination of embalming necessitates a consideration of its history. Many people understandable presume that the earliest civilization to adopt the practice if embalming their dead was that of the ancient Egyptians. Indeed, it was the ancient Egyptians that took embalming to a level that isn’t even particularly replicated today. Nonetheless, it was not the ancient Egyptians who first developed the practice if embalming. Rather, two to three thousand years before the Egyptians adopted the practice of embalming their dead, the Chinchorro civilization in what is now modern-day Peru and Chile undertook the embalming of their dead. This occurred between 5000 and 6000 BC while the Egyptians commenced preserving their dead in about 3200 BC, during what is known as the First Dynasty.

Embalming was late to spread to Europe. The availability of embalming became widely spread throughout Europe in about 500 AD. Despite being widely available, embalming was not routine used in European countries at this time. A variety of reasons existed as to why embalming wasn’t broadly practiced during this time period and in the centuries that followed. These included religious concerns with the practice and the fact that bodies generally quickly were interned, eliminating the perceived need for embalming.

When the use of embalming became a bit more commonplace in Europe over the succeeding 800 events, health issues like the Black Death or Plague resulted in the abandonment of embalming in favor of disposition of contaminated remains through burning and other immediate internment processes. As the “New World” was settled by Europeans, embalming was not a common practice for these settlers.

During the entire Colonial period in the United States through the first 90 years of United States, embalming was not commonly utilized. The circumstances of the Civil War sparked an interest in embalming in the United States and in the Confederate States. Somewhere between 620,000 and 700,000 people died during the Civil War. People were dying in such great numbers at the same time it became impossible to bury the dead in a timely manner. Because of the biohazardous dangers associated with the human decomposition process, concerns with the spread of disease initiated the broad use of embalming in the United States and Confederate States, a practice that would continue from the middle of the 19th century until today.

A Pair of Noteworthy Embalming Cases

A pair of embalming cases a generation apart underscore how effective the preservation of a human body can be in certain situations. These cases involve the first leader of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin, and iconic Argentine First Lady Eva Peron. When Lenin died in 1924 and Peron died in 1952, embalmers were directed to preserve the remains of these leaders in a manner that were ensure that they would remain in a state that permitted public display of the bodied indefinitely. The work of the embalmers in the case of Lenin and Peron became legendary. These men did succeed in preserving their respective charges in a manner that did indeed make it possible for these bodies to remain on public display. In fact, Lenin’s body would be placed in a grand tomb in the heart of the Kremlin’s Red Square in Moscow where people would file past the glass casket for decades to view the former leader.

The remains of Eva Peron (better known as Evita in the United States as a result of the theatrical musical and film starring Madonna) did not fare as well. Peron’s husband, the President of Argentina, was overthrown in a military coup within a couple years of Eva Peron’s death. Eva remained so popular in the country, the generals that overtook the government feared her body would be a rallying point for insurrection. Thus, they flew the body out of the country and buried it in an unmarked grave in Italy.

Ultimately, Juan Peron – Eva’s husband – returned to power about 20 years later. He was able to locate the remains of his late wife and had them returned to Argentina and the Presidential Palace, the Casa Rosado. It was here that the body of Eva Peron was kept in a glass coffin. Oddly, the casket was propped up in the dining room where President Peron and his latest wife would “dine” with the deceased First Lady. Perhaps more unusual yet, the new Mrs. Peron would prostate herself over the casket of Eva Peron in hopes of absorbing the deceased woman’s spirit. Ultimately, Eva Peron was laid to rest in a family crypt in Buenos Aires, where her body peacefully remains today.