How Embalming Works

Modern Process

Modern embalmers are, professionals with an understanding of anatomy, pathology, microbiology, chemistry, cosmetology and restorative art. In the U.S., embalmers must complete a course of education and, in most states, pass licensing requirements before they may begin their career.

According to Jeff Seiple, embalming instructor at Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service, "Licensed embalmers are highly trained to handle human remains and adhere to OSHA's [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] standards for using personal protective equipment [source: Seiple]."


So what is the typical process? First, the funeral home receives the family's permission to embalm, as required by the Federal Trade Commission. Embalming is rarely required by law, with a few exceptions. For example, embalming is required when a body is crossing state lines from Alabama, Alaska and New Jersey. In addition, California, Idaho, Kansas and Minnesota require embalming when a body is shipped by common carrier.

With permission, the embalming process begins. Each case is unique, with different needs for disinfection, preservation and restoration. When asked how long the process takes, Seiple says, "Embalming takes as long as its takes. You must treat each body as an individual case and give it proper time and attention" [source: Seiple].

In general, the process involves these steps:

  1. The body is placed on a table, bathed and cleaned.
  2. Embalming fluid is injected into the arteries via a tube connected to an embalming machine. The fluid is a combination of water and preservative chemical, such as formaldehyde. Because the chemical dehydrates and hardens the tissue, the fluid's presence inside the body works as a preservative by making the deceased an unsuitable host for bacteria and other organisms. This slows the decomposition that would occur without the fluid.
  3. The amount of fluid required through all steps varies based on a case-by-case analysis. On average, an embalmer will need to use 1 gallon (3.8 liters) of embalming solution for every 50 pounds (22.7 kilograms) of body weight [source: Seiple].
  4. The blood is removed from the venous system (the veins).
  5. The vessels are then tied off and the incisions sutured closed.
  6. The internal body cavity is treated by removing liquids and gases and adding the preservative embalming fluid mentioned in step two.
  7. The body is then washed and dressed.
  8. Cosmetics are applied to restore appearance.

During embalming, the embalmer uses techniques to aid in distribution of the fluid and emptying tissues, such as gentle massage. This also clears discolorations, helps stiffness, and keeps the face and hands soft. However, yet again, special training is of paramount importance, as too-aggressive massage can cause dehydration and swelling.

Now that you know the ins and outs of the process, let's explore the pros and cons of embalming.