Embalming: Your Questions Answered
Heartthrob James Dean wanted to live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse. Well, it wouldnt stay beautiful for long unless he made arrangements to have his body embalmed. This method of corpse conservation literally means to treat a dead body with special chemicals and preservatives to prevent decay. And while it may sound a bit morbid, to say the least, its a method that has been around for a long time, so it must work!
We embalm for a very basic reason: to preserve the body long enough for us to perform funeral rites. Some religions do not believe in embalming, while others see it as entirely natural. For many people, having a healthy-looking body on display is a comforting way to say goodbye, and preserve happy memories.
Embalming goes back thousands of years, to the ancient Egyptians who came up with all sorts of ways to preserve a body, which they believe would allow them to be whole in the afterlife. Embalming today does not serve the same purpose, it is seen as a temporary way to preserve a corpse - to restore an attractive physical appearance, retard decay and reduce the presence of micro-organisms. Basically, it is a ritual done for the benefit of those who are still alive, to help them better come to terms with their loved ones death by seeing them looking healthy and happy - albeit dead - at their funeral.
Steps to An Eternally Beautiful Corpse
Nothing lasts forever - but a dead body can last a helluva long time if you take the right steps. And Harold and Maude arent the only ones who were fascinated by this macabre procedure. Here are the steps embalmers take to prepare a dead body for display at its own wake...
Pre-Embalming. Once a body is taken to a funeral home, the mortician strips it and takes off all jewellery, bandages etc. He or she then makes detailed notes of everything on the body - bruises, discolorations etc (very important if the family tries to sue the funeral home). The body is then cleaned with a strong disinfectant, and if rigor mortis has set in this is relieved by a light massage. Finally, the corpse is shaved of all facial hair - including the peach fuzz on women and on children - so the makeup applied after the corpse has been embalmed will stick on better - and stay around for longer.
Setting Facial Features. This is a very important part of the embalming process, especially if the embalmed one died in pain - or in an embarrassing position with an embarrassing expression on his or her face. The reason corpses always look so healthy and lovely at their own wakes is because all their oral cavities have been plugged with cotton. That doesnt mean only the eyes and nose, but also potentially sunken areas like the cheeks and under the eyes (looks like Granny had a face lift!). Skin hardens quite a bit after the embalming process, so its important that this vital task is performed at this time.
Arterial Embalming. This bit is kind of gross (as if the other bits werent).The embalmer now has to cut the body and prepare the arteries to accept the embalming fluid, or inject the formaldehyde into the veins. But its not a one-way street: while this happens a special machine drains the blood out from the arteries.
Cavity Embalming. Next, the bodys major organs are punctured and aspirated using a special needle attached to an aspirator, with incisions made to the left and above the naval. The bodys cavities are then filled with a concentrated version of the embalming fluid.
Post Embalming. The body is washed using a special soap then the cuts are sealed and a liquid adhesive is applied to ensure no formaldehyde seeps out. The body is then dressed and cosmetics are applied so the corpse is ready to be viewed. Relatives usually are given the choice of dressing their loved one themselves, or having the funeral home do it for them.
As if the process of embalming wasnt interesting enough...
It is reported that embalming began to grow in popularity in the USA during the Civil War. Thanks to this practice, men who died far from home were still able to make it home intact for their own funerals.
The supposed embalmed body of Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet State, has been lying in state in Moscows Red Square since he died in 1924. Critics of Lenin - and the embalming process - believe that 12 wax replicas of Lenins body actually exist, not one embalmed corpse, and that they are rotated monthly for maximum effect.
It has been rumored that Diana, Princess of Wales, was embalmed in great haste following her accidental death in a car accident to conceal the fact that she was pregnant.
Former US president Abraham Lincoln was among the great embalmed. When his body was exhumed 36 years later when he was moved to another spot, it is said that his facial features were still recognizable.
Paul VI unhappily died during the very hot summer of 1978. It is said that Vatican officials were impelled - or perhaps implored - to install fans around his coffin to help remove the odor that emanated from his corpse, although he had been embalmed.
The American Society of Embalmers, which claims more than 400 members, states that there is "much to be said about pursuing a career in funeral service", but that the profession is a difficult one. "It must be remembered that each deceased individual we prepare is someones loved one; a father, mother, child, sister, brother, or other dear family member or friend. We must treat each one of these individuals as though they were a member of our own family and maintain a sense of dignity for them."
Being an embalmer doesnt have to be that nasty, however. Dead body odors can be eliminated with the Smelleze™ Funeral Home, Morgue & Autopsy Deodorizer Pouch, which claims to eliminate odors and not just cover them up. "The strong, unpleasant body and formaldehyde odors are offensive to many people," the products website claims. But Smelleze is a "natural deodorizer that can be used to eliminate noxious and unpleasant body and embalming fluid odors instead of merely masking them with fragrances".
Embalming is done for those of us who are still alive. People who criticize this preservation technique point to the fact that the earth is already overcrowded, and that there is no use in filling up cemeteries with dead people (they also point out that the practice is disgusting). However, you can still be cremated and have your ashes scattered in the sea - or made into a dolphin-friendly coral reef - after youre embalmed, so this argument is not a water-tight one (no pun intended).
If the thought of being embalmed doesnt fill you with glee, there is a remedy: leave a will with all your after-death intentions stated clearly and succinctly. After all, cremation with a memorial service costs a lot less than embalming plus service. And who knows, maybe your relatives with thank you for leaving their body cavities alone in the afterlife...
Sarah Matthews is a writer for Yodle, a business directory and online advertising company. Find a burial service or more plastic surgery articles at Yodle Consumer Guide. Embalming: Your Questions Answered