To Embalm or Not

To embalm or not to embalm the body of a deceased loved one can be a complicated question, often emotionally charged, that, for best results, should not be left for a family to answer in the hours and days immediately after a death. To assure that a memorial ceremony or service is as meaningful and as dignified as possible, it is a good idea to have a plan for whether embalming is necessary or not well before a death. In fact, most family planning experts highly recommend that embalming be addressed specifically in a will – especially if the choice is not to embalm. Either way, the difficulty that families may experience in providing an answer to this question is one of the many reasons that pre arranging funeral decisions is very helpful – both emotionally and financially – to suriving loved ones. This article will discuss a few of the thoughts that experts commonly express on this topic that is so vitally important to the making of a memorable memorial.

Deciding whether to embalm a loved one should be discussed at length before the funeral

An important consideration in the question of whether to embalm or not may be surprising to many people: while embalming has been practiced in one form or another for centuries in cultures across the globe (i.e. mummification of the body in the Ancient Egyptian culture), in today’s modern world, it is almost exclusively practiced in the developed, western world, particularly the United States, though it is gradually becoming more prevalent in Europe these days. Many modern cultures, in fact, look upon embalming as a bit of a taboo practice, and some even strictly prohibit it for religious reasons. In these societies, embalming is seen as an unnatural and entirely unnecessary crime against the natural world, perhaps even God too. And, in recent years, many people even in the western world have come to share this opinion of embalming. Many consider it an entirely wasteful act, and some consumer’s groups have taken to campaigning against it, making sure their clients are well aware that embalming is not required by law and that arranging a memorial service without any embalming is entirely practical and acceptable in today’s modern world.

But, while this may seem to be a very convincing argument on the side of not to embalm, embalming does remain a very popular option, and there are many reasons to consider it. The most important of the arguments in favor of embalming is, quite simply, state or municipal law. Though most cities and states no longer require embalming (and, in fact, there have been a number of legal challenges to the laws that still do), laws do exist that require embalming in some rare cases. And almost all of these cases involve the transport of a body across state lines or, in the case of California, Idaho, Kansas and Montana, embalming is usually required when a body is shipped to any locale via a commercial carrier. It is important to note that, if your decision to embalm is based on the thought that embalming helps from a sanitation perspective, that idea is based on outdated science that has been thoroughly invalidated. Embalming does not, scientists have proven time and again, do anything to protect the public health. (In fact, some locales such as Hawaii and Ontario prohibit embalming in cases in which a person has died of a contagious disease.

Embalming is not required in most cases, so a family should be well informed of their options

Ironically, wastes and by-product from the embalming process can lead to the spread of disease if it is not properly disposed – and the disposal of embalming waste is largely unregulated.) But, even when embalming is not required by law, it is still a popular option in cases in which a deceased family member’s body is to be displayed publicly before, after or during a memorial service. It is important to note that embalming is not always required before one of these “open casket” viewings, but it is often preferred by family members and visitors alike. And, in fact, funeral homes do have the legal right to ask that bodies to be displayed publicly be embalmed. (This right is questioned by many consumer groups who see it as a simple tool by which funeral homes can sell their embalming service. Such arguments are difficult to deny, but, nevertheless, funeral homes are, generally speaking, under no legal obligation to host an open casket funeral for a body that has not been embalmed.) An important thing to consider before agreeing to an embalming for a loved one is that embalming is for cosmetic purposes only. The procedure will not do anything to preserve a body for any longer than it can naturally be expected to last after burial.

In fact, some studies show that chemicals used during the embalming process sometimes cause bodies that have been embalmed to tend to decompose faster than those that have not. Funeral homes are legally prohibited from making any sort of claim that embalming to will preserve a body, yet consumer’s groups consistently report cases in which a funeral home’s employee will do just that. Even a subtle implication that embalming will preserve a body can lead to stiff fines for a funeral home if it is detected by the Federal Trade Commission or other government regulators. The trouble with this law, consumer activists will point out, is that enforcement is difficult and spotty. So consumers are, for the most part, left to themselves to keep from being victimized by a false claim about embalming. If employees of a funeral home you are working with make any sort of remark that can be taken to imply that embalming is a good way to preserve a body, it is wise to take your business elsewhere immediately. If the funeral home cannot be trusted to abide by this rule, then it likely will be willing to violate other rules intended to protect grieving families as well.

The bottom line is that embalming can be an excellent choice for families wishing to see their loved one presented one last time before mourners in the most attractive manor available. But it’s also important to remember that a beautiful, loving, and up-lifting memorial service is possible without the use of embalming. So the choice is entirely up to the family members who have taken upon themselves the task of organizing a memorial service. Regardless of the choice, a moving memorial ceremony can certainly be accomplished – and appreciated – by all, when a family is well aware of all of their memorial options. Being aware of one’s various options can ensure a truly befitting tribute to a lost loved one.