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The facts about embalming

At Holly’s Funerals, we believe that the process of embalming (or Hygienic Treatment as many funeral directors like to call it) is unnatural and unnecessary.

Contrary to common belief, embalming is not a legal requirement and, when most bodies are preserved efficiently by modern refrigeration, it’s certainly not necessary.

The chemicals used to preserve the body are poisonous and harmful to our environment. In fact, most natural burial grounds will not allow bodies that have been embalmed.

We prefer to offer a much more natural and gentle approach to care that does not rely on the use of poisonous chemicals.

What is embalming?

Foremost, embalming is a physically invasive pro­cess, in which the natural bodily fluids are drained from a person and replaced by a mixture of chemicals to temporarily slow its decomposition.

The embalming solution is usually a combination of formaldehyde, alcohol and may also contain dyes in order to simulate a life-like skin-tone.

Additionally, the embalming process can often include the insertion of other packing materials into the body as well as cosmetic preparations to help preserve the shape and living appearance of the body.

Is Embalming Necessary?

It’s difficult to find support for routine embalming within the medical profession. There is no evidence that a body poses any threat to the living, except where death was due to a “Notifiable Disease”. No evidence exists of funeral directing, cemetery or crematorium staff obtaining an infection from a body that has not been embalmed.

Embalmers suggest that the process thoroughly disinfects the body and removes any risk, however slight, to any person who may come in to contact with the body. Conversely, it would be logical to assume that if a real health risk existed, embalming would be mandatory. In fact, when a person dies of a Notifiable Disease, embalming is not allowed.

In most cases, embalming is used purely for cosmetic reasons, to prepare the body for viewing prior to burial or cremation, to slow down the natural decomposition process and to prevent the body from leaking bodily fluids.

Environmental Issues

The embalming fluid normally consists of a 2% solution of formaldehyde, an irritant, volatile acid. Approximately, one to two gallons of embalming fluid can be used and the effect of this on soil, soil organisms and air quality following burial or cremation needs further independent research.

Our ignorance of the consequences of using this chemical is a cause for concern. In particular, the chemical is used by funeral directors and embalmers who carry no responsibility for its impact on the cemetery, crematorium or community.

How common is embalming?

Embalming is common only in the US and Canada and much of our understanding in the UK may originate from these countries. It is not common in other parts of Europe or the world.

Within the UK, embalming is only particularly evident amongst larger commercial funeral directors in urban locations. Conversely, the process is less common in rural areas, where small funeral directing businesses predominate.

Do any religions forbid it?

Muslim, Bahá’í and orthodox Jewish faiths consider embalming to be a desecration of the body, and prohibit it. Hindus and Buddhists choosing cremation have no need for embalming.

How well does it preserve the body?

Embalming does not preserve the human body forever; it merely delays the inevitable and natural consequences of death. The rate of decomposition will vary, depending on the strength of the chemicals and methods used, and the humidity and temperature of the final resting place.

Ambient temperature has more effect on the decomposition process than the amount of time elapsed since death and whether or not a body has been embalmed. Most modern funeral directors will have efficient mortuary refridgerators that are very effective at slowing the rate of decomposition.

Why is embalming promoted?

Quite often embalming is recommended by funeral directors out of concern for their clients. The embalming is used as a way of delaying the decomposition process and thus present a more “lifelike” appearance of the body.

In reality, most people are prepared for a certain level of bodily change and the process of seeing a lifeless “empty” body without soul can be a helpful part of the grieving process. Embalming can sometimes lead to a wholly unrealistic and unnatural look that can be off-putting to families.

Embalming can be seen by some funeral directors as an important part of supporting their role in the process and a way of justifying their professional fees. Sometimes, embalming is simply included as part of the funeral package and fees are paid without the family realising what is involved.

Are there any alternatives?

Yes, refrigeration can be used to maintain a body while awaiting a funeral service or when there is a delay in making arrangements.

Do you have a Choice?

Of course you do. You should reasonably expect to be informed about the embalming process and the advantages and disadvantages associated.

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