AskDefine | Define embalming

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  1. present participle of embalm

Extensive Definition

Embalming, in most modern cultures, is the art and science of temporarily preserving human remains to forestall decomposition and to make them suitable for display at a funeral. The three goals of embalming are thus preservation, sanitization and presentation (or restoration) of a dead body to achieve this effect. Embalming has a very long and cross-cultural history, with many cultures giving the embalming processes a greater religious meaning.



After the body is rewashed and dried, a moisturizing cream is applied to the face. The body will usually sit for as long as possible for observation by the embalmer. After being dressed for visitation/funeral services, cosmetics are applied to make it appear more lifelike and to create a "memory picture" for the deceased's friends and relatives. For babies who have died, the embalmer may apply a light cosmetic massage cream after embalming to provide a natural appearance; massage cream is also used on the lips to prevent them from dehydrating, and the infant's mouth is often left open a bit for a more natural expression. If possible, the funeral director uses a light, translucent cosmetic; sometimes, heavier, opaque cosmetics are used to hide bruises, cuts, or discolored areas. Makeup is applied to the lips to mimic their natural color. Sometimes a very pale or light pink lipstick is applied on males, while brighter colored lipstick is applied to females. Hair gels or baby oil is applied to style the hair, especially for deceased who are male. Mortuary cosmetizing is not done for the same reason as make-up for living people; rather, it is designed to add depth and dimension to a person's features that the lack of blood circulation has removed. Warm areas - where blood vessels in living people are superficial, such as the cheeks, chin, and knuckles - have subtle reds added to recreate this effect, while browns are added to the palpabrae (eyelids) to add depth, especially important as viewing in a casket creates an unusual perspective rarely seen in everyday life. During the viewing, pink-colored lighting is sometimes used near the body to lend a warmer tone to the deceased's complexion. A photograph of the dead person in good health is often sought in order to guide the embalmer's hand in restoring the corpse to a more lifelike appearance. Blemishes and discolorations (such as bruises, in which the discoloration is not in the circulatory system and cannot be removed by arterial injection) occasioned by the last illness, the settling of blood, or the embalming process itself are also dealt with at this time (although some embalmers utilize hypodermic bleaching agents, such as phenol based cauterants, during injection to lighten discoloration and allow for easier cosmetizing).


In the United States, men are typically buried in semi-formal clothing, such as a suit or coat and tie, and women in semi-formal dresses or pant suits. In recent years, some individuals are now buried in less formal clothing that they would have worn on a daily basis. Clothing worn can also reflect the deceased person's profession or vocation. Priests and ministers are often dressed in their liturgical vestments and military personnel wear their uniform.
The undergarments are also important. Funeral directors will suggest that when they bring the clothing to the funeral home, the family or other responsible parties should bring all undergarments as well. Underwear, t-shirts, bra, thongs, briefs and even hosiery are all used. The deceased are dressed just as they would be in life. Although, sometimes due to the condition of the deceased, the clothing may be cut down the middle of the back and draped over the body.
In many areas of Asia and Europe, the custom of dressing the body in a specially designed shroud/funeral gown, rather than in clothing used by the living, is preferred.
After the deceased has been dressed, they are placed in the casket (the term casket is derived from older usage to refer to a "jewel box", it is called a coffin when the container is anthropoid [a stretched hexagon] in form) for the various funeral rites. It is common for photographs, notes, cards and favorite personal items to be placed in the casket with the deceased. Even bulky and expensive items, such as electric guitars, are occasionally interred with a body. In some ways this mirrors the ancient practice of placing grave goods with a person for the afterlife. In traditional Chinese culture, paper substitutes of the goods are cremated with the deceased instead, as well as Hell Bank Notes specifically purchased for the occasion.

Embalming chemicals

Embalming chemicals are a variety of preservatives, sanitizers, disinfectant agents and additives used in modern embalming to temporarily delay decomposition and restore a natural appearance for viewing a body after death. A mixture of these chemicals is known as embalming fluid and is used to preserve deceased individuals, sometimes only until the funeral, other times indefinitely.
Typical embalming fluid contains a mixture of formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, methanol, ethanol, and other solvents. The formaldehyde content generally ranges from 5 to 35 percent and the ethanol content may range from 9 to 56 percent.

Specialist embalming

Badly decomposing bodies, trauma cases, frozen and drowned bodies, and those to be transported for long distances also require special treatment beyond that for the "normal" case. The restoration of bodies and features damaged by accident or disease is commonly called restorative art or demisurgery and all qualified embalmers have some degree of training and practice in it. For such cases, the benefit of embalming is startlingly apparent. In contrast though, many people have unreal expectations of what a dead body should look like due to the unrealistic portrayal of "dead" bodies in movies and television shows. Viewers generally have an unreal expectation that a body going through decomposistion should look as it did before death. Ironically, the work of a skilled embalmer often results in the deceased appearing natural enough that the embalmer appears to have done nothing at all. Normally cosmeticians are very happy when someone can bring in a picture and the decedent's regular makeups, if worn, to help make their loved one to look as they did alive.
Embalming autopsy cases differs from standard embalming because the nature of the post-mortem examination irrevocably disrupts the circulatory system due to the removal of the organs and viscera. In these cases, a six-point injection is made through the two illiac or femoral arteries, subclavian or axillary vessels, and common carotids, with the viscera treated separately with cavity fluid or a special embalming powder in a viscera bag. In many morgues in the United States (such as the Los Angeles County Coroners Office) and New Zealand, these necessary vessels are carefully preserved during the autopsy; in countries in which embalming has been less common, such as Australia and Japan, they are routinely excised.
Long-term preservation requires different techniques, such as using stronger preservative chemicals and multiple injection sites to ensure thorough saturation of body tissues.
Embalming is meant to temporarily preserve the body of a deceased person. Regardless of whether embalming is performed, the type of burial or entombment, and the materials used — such as wood or metal caskets and vaults — the body of the deceased will eventually decompose. Modern embalming is done to delay decomposition so that funeral services may take place or for the purpose of shipping the remains to a distant place for disposition.

Embalming for anatomy education

A rather different process is used for cadavers embalmed for dissection by medical and funeral service students. Here, the first priority is for long term preservation, not presentation. As such, medical embalmers use embalming fluids that contain concentrated formaldehyde (37–40%, known as formalin) as well as phenol and are made without dyes or perfumes. Many embalming chemical companies make specialized anatomical embalming fluids. Anatomical embalming is performed into a closed circulatory system. The fluid is injected with an emblaming machine into an artery under high pressure and flow and allowed to swell and saturate the tissues. After the deceased is left to sit for a number of hours, the veinous system is opened and the fluid allowed to drain out. This serves to replace any water in the tissues of the deceased with preservation. Excess water in the tissues can serve as a growth site for bacteria.
Anatomical embalmers may choose to use gravity-feed embalming, where the container dispensing the embalming fluid is elevated above the body's level and fluid is slowly introduced over an extended time, sometimes as long as several days. Unlike standard arterial embalming, no drainage occurs and the body distends with fluid that eventually reduces, leaving a normal appearance. There is no separate cavity treatment of the internal organs. Anatomically embalmed cadavers have a typically uniform grey colouration due both to the high formaldehyde concentration and to the lack of red colouration (added normally to standard, non-medical embalming fluids).

Religious practices

There is much difference of opinion amongst different faiths as to the permissibility of embalming. A brief overview of some of the larger faiths positions are examined below
  • All of the major branches of the Christian faith, allow embalming. Some bodies within Eastern Orthodoxy maintain an absolute ban against embalming except when required by law or other necessity, while others discourage but do not prohibit it .
  • Many authorities hold Hinduism does not accept embalming. In practice, this is not an adamant prohibition and embalmings for those of Hindu faith are known to happen, generally for repatriation to India or the South Pacific and for the purposes of viewing and funerary rites at the family home.
  • Members of Bahá'í Faith are not embalmed. Instead the body is washed and then placed in a cotton, linen or silk shroud. The body is to be buried within one hour's journey from the place of death, if this will be feasible.
  • Zoroastrians traditionally hold a type of sky burial within structures known as Towers of Silence in which the body is exposed to weathering and predation to dispose of the remains, and thus embalming the body is contrary to their funeral designs. This is due to the Zoroastrian belief that the dead body is unclean and the pure elements of earth and fire should not be allowed to come into contact with it. This practice is not universally performed any more, and many Iranian Zoroastrians perform traditional cremations and burials instead.
  • Muslims are required to be buried within 24 hours of death if possible. Embalming is forbidden. The body is still washed and prepared specifically for interment. This procedure is to be done according to the last will of the deceased, usually by a close relative of the deceased who is of the same gender. He or she is then dressed in a plain white burial shroud (for women, the hair, ears and neck are covered as they were in life, preserving her dignity before men who are not closely related; men are buried in their ihram, or pilgrim garb, as worn during the Hajj in Mecca). Muslims believe that the spirit remains with the body from death until after burial, which is the reason for same-day burial, as well as the aforementioned procedures; the body is treated with the same care and respect as in life so as to not cause undue stress to the deceased. For the same reason, cremation is also forbidden. Prayers and readings of the Qur'an are spoken aloud to give comfort to the deceased, and the body is not left alone even for a time following the burial, during which the deceased is buried (preferably without a casket) on his or her right side, facing Mecca.
  • Traditional Jewish law forbids embalming, and burial is to be done as soon as possible - preferably within 24 hours. However, under certain circumstances, burial may be delayed if it is impossible to bury a person immediately , or to permit the deceased to be buried in Israel. Guidance of a Rabbi or the local chevra kadisha (Jewish Burial Society) should be sought regarding any questions, as particular circumstances may justify leniencies. Notably the Biblical Joseph was embalmed in the Egyptian fashion (Genesis 50:26).

Embalming in popular culture

Fictional works tend to portray the fantastic, extraordinary and often dysfunctional aspects of any profession or activity with which the public has little contact, and to ignore the mundane or routine. Embalming is no exception.
  • The film My Girl shows Dan Aykroyd as a funeral parlor owner, who throughout the movie is in the process of working on the deceased, usually embalming. In one instance when his daughter comes into his work area and begins to sing a song to his co-worker, he says "I'm embalming my high school teacher, don't sing".
  • The television show Six Feet Under, set in a funeral home, has brought embalming and funeral practice back into the public eye and is noted for its reality and dark humour. The character Hector Federico "Rico" Diaz is a full-time embalmer employed by the funeral home in the show. Many of the more extensive techniques, like a full face rebuild were of the fantastical nature. This television show does not accurately reflect the true, day-to-day activities of an actual funeral home and preparation room.
  • In the film Tales from the Crypt, Richard Greene portrays a character who is killed in a car accident and then magically wished back to life forever, after he has been embalmed. As a result, he awakens in excruciating pain and there is no cure; he will be in physical agony permanently.
  • The reality TV show Family Plots, which was shown on the A&E Network often gave viewers a behind-the-scenes look into the embalming room. The embalmer working at the mortuary at the time, Shonna Wissmiller Smith, had become a minor celebrity.
  • In the episode of the cartoon South Park entitled Pinkeye Kenny is transformed into a zombie when worcestershire sauce is used as embalming fluid.
  • Many horror films dealing with animate mummies focus on gruesome aspect of Ancient Egyptian embalming practises, frequently having them embalmed alive as punishment for some transgression.
  • In the end of the Vincent Price film The Abominable Dr. Phibes the central villain rather ludicrously embalms himself to be forever with his dead wife in the final sequence. This does not stop his resurrection for the sequel.
  • There is a horror movie titled The Embalmer whose movie posters read " after beauty dragged to a sunken crypt...petrified play-captives of THE EMBALMER".
  • In the film Kissed the lead female character is a necrophiliac who is training to become an embalmer.
  • In the TV Show, CSI:NY (Season 4, Episode 1) a person is shown being embalmed with orange dish soap while he was still alive. This was to make him confess to a murder he witnessed.
  • Manga artist Mitsukazu Mihara made a five volume series entitled "The Embalmer" ("Shigeshoshi"). It focuses on the difficulties the main character, an embalmer named Shinjyurou, faces in Japan, where embalming is generally looked down upon. In 2007, TV Tokyo aired a drama series based on the manga, starring Wada Masato as Shinjyurou.
  • John Keats refers to sleep as the "soft embalmer of the still midnight."
  • Daytime television series "Come Dine With Me", features Gordon Todd,series two, who had studyed embalming and had a picture of his father in his coffin in the spare bedroom.

Notable embalmings

  • It was rumored that after her death Diana, Princess of Wales was hastily embalmed to cloud tests that she may have been pregnant. However if this were the case an autopsy would still have easily been able to determine such an obvious condition and the rumour is just urban myth. The British inquest into her death, concluded in April 2008, revealed that the princess's remains were decomposing so rapidly in the August heat that the hospital holding her had no choice but to embalm her, to keep her in viewable condition when Prince Charles came to visit later that day. [, 7 April 2008]
  • Contrary to media reports John Paul II (pope 1978–2005) was not embalmed before lying in state and photographs of him clearly show the blotchiness and discoloration that is characteristic of lividity and the early stages of decomposition.
  • Having died in the summer when heat would hasten decomposition, Paul VI (pope 1963–1978) decomposed at his lying in state, prompting Vatican officials to install fans around the body to disperse the odor.
  • Pius XII's (pope 1939–1958) botched embalming by a charlatan doctor -- which only sped up the rate of decomposition -- led to his body turning black and his nose falling off while lying in state, and the body disintegrated in the coffin. The Swiss Guards stationed around Pius XII's body were forced to change shifts every ten to fifteen minutes since the body's odor caused some guards to pass out. The doctor who performed the embalming had also taken photos of the Pontiff in his death throes and intended to sell them to tabloids. The Italian tabloids refused to buy the photos, and the doctor was banned from entering the Vatican City-State by John XXIII, who furthermore prohibited any photography of a deceased Pope until the body is properly vested and laid out.
  • Pope John XXIII's body is on display in an altar on the main floor of the Basilica of Saint Peter after having been exhumed from the grottoes beneath the main altar and has retained an extremely well-preserved state. If a body's remains do not decompose and this cannot be explained by science, it is often treated as a miracle.
However, the case of John XXIII's body did not enjoy the same acclamation, as it may have merely been due to embalming and adipocere formation.
  • Murdered civil rights activist Medgar Evers was so well embalmed it allowed for a viable autopsy to be performed on his corpse decades after his death and this helped secure the conviction of his killer.
  • Perhaps the most famous embalmed body of the 20th century is that of Vladimir Lenin, which continues to draw crowds decades after his death.
  • Eva Perón ("Evita") was embalmed at the request of her husband, Argentine President Juan Perón, in order to make a Lenin-like shrine to her memory. A coup d'état toppled Perón, and his plan did not come to fruition. Sixteen years after her death, Eva Perón's body was exhumed and found to be in perfect condition, leading some sectors of Argentine society to call for her canonization.
  • When Abraham Lincoln's body was embalmed, the embalmer preserved it for the long term. At the turn of the century, it was disinterred for forensic study, revealing a perfectly preserved corpse.
  • Rosalia Lombardo, who died at age two on 6 December 1920 and was one of the last corpses to make it to the Capuchin catacombs of Palermo, Sicily before the local authorities banned the practice. Nicknamed the 'Sleeping Beauty', Rosalia's body is still perfectly intact. Embalmed by a certain Alfredo Salafia, she is in a glass case, looking very much like a surreal doll.
  • Arterial embalming began in the Netherlands in the 17th century. Embalming is no longer allowed in the Netherlands, except in the case of international transport of the corpse and in the case of members of the royal family, who choose individually for or against it.
  • Plastination makes it possible to preserve individual tissues and organs that have been removed from the body of the deceased as well as the entire body itself. It is not achieved via arterial injection like embalming but by a much longer and more complicated process. Water and fat in tissue are replaced with silicone in a process which, for most specimens, takes about one month. Preserved tissue is first dissected and then dehydrated with acetone. It is immersed in a silicone bath under vacuum until the replacement of acetone is completed. After plastination, the resulting tissue is safe to handle (i.e., toxic fixatives are eliminated), the tissue has no odor, is extremely durable and intact even to the microscopic level. Thus, the anatomical specimens are safer to use, more pleasant to use, and are much more durable and have a much longer period of use. Plastination is not used for funerals due to time, cost and feasibility restraints.
  • Benigno S. "Nino" Aquino, Jr. (1932–1983), popular opposition leader to Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos, was not embalmed after his assassination. His mother decided against it so that the Filipino people can see "what they did to my son." Mourners saw the fresh exit wound on Aquino's chin where the bullet made its exit after coming in from the back.


  • Frederick, L.G.; Strub, Clarence G. [1959] (1989).]
The Principles and Practice of Embalming, 5th ed., Dallas, TX: Professional Training Schools Inc & Robertine Frederick. OCLC 20723376.
  • Mayer, Robert G. (2000-01-27).
Embalming: History, Theory and Practice, 3rd ed., McGraw-Hill/Appleton & Lange. ISBN 978-0838521878.
embalming in Arabic: تحنيط
embalming in Catalan: Momificació
embalming in Danish: Balsamering
embalming in German: Einbalsamierung
embalming in Spanish: Embalsamamiento
embalming in Esperanto: Mumiigo
embalming in French: Embaumement
embalming in Friulian: Imbalsamazion
embalming in Italian: Imbalsamazione
embalming in Hebrew: חניטה
embalming in Japanese: エンバーミング
embalming in Norwegian: Balsamering
embalming in Polish: Mumifikacja
embalming in Portuguese: Embalsamento
embalming in Russian: Бальзамирование
embalming in Simple English: Embalming
embalming in Finnish: Palsamointi
embalming in Swedish: Balsamering
embalming in Ukrainian: Бальзамування

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