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What Is Embalming & How Is It Done?

embalmer working in the lab

Embalming is the scientific practice that a body undergoes after death to preserve it and to slow down the process of decomposition. 

The most known historical use of embalming is when the Ancient Egyptians would embalm their pharaohs and wrap them in large wraps. This particular form of embalming is more commonly referred to as mummification and is an example of one different embalming type throughout history.


Mummification vs. Modern Embalming

Several cultures had very different methods of embalming their dead. Where the Egyptians mummified their pharaohs so they would be preserved throughout history, today’s bodies are embalmed to display the body at an open-casket funeral or in the chapel of rest. Otherwise, the body may be used in a museum or for medical training purposes, or even for art exhibits. 

Also, unlike the Ancient Egyptians, our methods for embalming these days are very different. We don’t remove the internal organs anymore, and in fact, just about everything about embalming today is the result of centuries of research.


How Does It Work?

The process these days begins with placing the body onto a mortuary table, which is a type of table designed explicitly as a platform to hold dead bodies. These tables are used for embalming and autopsies. Embalming tables are designed to keep bodily fluids and embalming liquids away from the professionals working on the body. The liquids are drained away through the table, which is a necessary part of the process to maintain cleanliness within the mortuary or funeral home.

The morticians begin by checking the point of decomposition on the body by noting down details about things like:

  • Skin Condition
  • Edema
  • Fecal Matter Presence
  • Rigor Mortis
  • Lividity

Afterward, the body is washed in germicidal soap, and the body is massaged to relieve the effects of rigor mortis. Then before the primary embalming process, the face must be set for presentation. Before anything else can be done, the morgue or funeral home must first be checked to be a safe and clean working environment.


 stainless steel embalming table

Safety Practices & Table Use

The methods of embalming are both highly detailed and require a high level of detail. To be able to do these things, the area must be clean, and well looked after. 

A quality mortuary table is an incredibly important part of the procedure as by draining away the bodily fluids keeps the body clean. And by using tubes to inject and transfer the embalming fluids, it keeps the body from becoming stained. As in any safe working environment, they must be easily movable across the morgue and will be set with wheels that can also lock into place. 

A high-quality embalming table will also include a hose to deep clean the surface after being used. This is highly important to prevent harmful bacteria from potentially doing damage to the body. It would also be preferable that they have storage compartments to be able to store embalming equipment. These tables are essential for maintaining a clean and safe working environment in any morgue or funeral home. 


Setting the Face

First, the eyes of the body are propped open using eye caps. Eye caps are the color of flesh, so on presentation, they cannot be seen without scrutiny. 

During rigor mortis, the mouth of a body may get stuck open, so during this process, the mouth is closed and either sewn shut with suture strings or injected with wire. The strings go through the gums below the teeth and above the front set of teeth. It’s then set through one of the nostrils and back down the mouth. Then the two ends of the string are tied together.

From the outside, this is impossible to see. Otherwise, the mouth may be closed with a needle injector, wherein a piece of wire is inserted in the upper and lower jaw, and are tied together at the ends to fasten the mouth securely. 

In both methods, the mouth can be manipulated for any particular expression, if necessary. 

After this, the main embalming process begins, which may be either Arterial Embalming or Cavity Embalming. One specific type of fluid known as embalming fluid is necessary to keep the body from undergoing decomposition.


What is Embalming Fluid?

Embalming fluid is the loose name for the different solutions of chemicals that are used to preserve dead bodies. Various embalming fluids have different effects, depending on which chemicals are used to make up the fluid, and the method of embalming used. The standard chemicals used in embalming fluids are:

  • Formaldehyde
  • Glutaraldehyde
  • Methanol
  • Ethanol
  • Phenol
  • Other solvents

The embalming fluid used for each body is dependent on that body and are made upon a case by case basis. The amount depends on the condition of the body, size, age, gender, and so on. As embalming fluid replaces the blood in the veins of the body, the veins of the body are often notably a different color when examined afterward. It is also important to note that the body will still decompose over time, but the process will be considerably slower after the embalming process is done.


Arterial Embalming

Arterial embalming is the process of injecting embalming fluids through the jugular or femoral veins into the arteries of the body. Before this, all the blood from the body must be drained with a centrifugal pump. The massaging that was done earlier would break up small blood clots to allow the draining process to be more efficient. 

Sometimes if the head of the deceased has swelling in the neck cavity, the mortician will choose to embalm the head separately. This is known as the pre-injection, wherein before the embalming fluid is injected, another solution is instead. This other solution has chemicals that reduce the swelling by dispersing blood clots. 

You will most commonly see arterial tubes being used for this specific embalming process. These tubes are made for precision and assist the embalmer in their procedures.


Cavity Embalming

Cavity embalming is a slightly different method entirely. In comparison to arterial embalming, the cavity approach is a minor surgical procedure. 

First, an aspirator and trocar are used to remove the internal fluids from the body’s cavities. A trocar is a small surgical instrument with a bladed edge used for incisions, that always contains a tube for withdrawing bodily fluids. 

After this, the mortician makes a small incision about two inches above the naval and pushes the trocar into the chest cavities. Using an injector, the cavities are filled with cavity chemicals that do the preservation. In this case, the cavity chemicals are filled with formaldehyde. 

Finally, the incision is sutured back up, and the process is complete.

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