Embalming and Its Value to the Funeral

A guest post by Matthew O Monsoon MBIE, Aff.AAPT

My name is Matt and I’ve been kindly invited by Coffin Club to write an article on embalming, from the perspective of a fully qualified embalmer.

As you may know, here at Coffin Club UK, we’re not known to be huge fans of embalming. But, as there are always two sides to every story we were delighted when a friendly embalmer offered to write a blog telling the other side of the story. So… over to Matt:

At the age of 14 I lost my father, suddenly due to natural causes. I come from a small family and my Mum was keen for me to have a part in my father’s funeral arrangements.

I visited the funeral home with my family to start planning arrangements for my father and I was taken aback as to how much was involved in arranging a funeral. Both the practical and emotional support that the funeral arranger and funeral director gave my Mum was second to none, at such a difficult and stressful time for our family.

Even at such a young age this experience left a lasting impression on me, and I started to explore the funeral profession from then on as a potential career. Although death had always intrigued me as a child as I was lucky to have a menagerie of pets. As each one left for rainbow bridge, I’d always create little funerals for them, decorating shoe boxes with flowers and have them laying in state for a day or two.

When I was 15, I was offered a work experience placement at a local funeral director, much to the shock of my headteacher. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with them, although being left near the mortuary area by myself terrified me, but I wasn’t going to let it dampen my interest in the profession, I was determined.

On leaving school I was offered a job as a funeral arranger with a large funeral company, and I thoroughly enjoyed all aspects of arranging funerals, creating the perfect send off for a family’s loved one and being there to support them through their loss.

I worked in a very busy funeral home and had to hit the ground running, but it was probably the best experience to have under my belt in the funeral profession, no two days were the same full of variety and differing experiences in looking after families.

After several years of funeral arranging, I decided that care of the deceased and embalming was my calling. I enrolled with the British Institute of Embalmers as a student and began my studies, which took a little over three years. I was lucky enough to be tutored by the late Mr. Peter Ball FBIE, who was a fellow and much respected tutor of the British Institute of Embalmers.

There are six theoretical written exams students must pass before going onto taking practical embalming examinations on a non-autopsied deceased and an autopsied deceased.

Students attend weekly classes for tutoring on the theoretical modules, as well as being assigned coursework to complete on a monthly basis.

Modern professional embalmers are highly qualified in the art and science of embalming. Students will spend several years studying anatomy, microbiology, pathology, chemistry, sanitation science, Health & Safety in the mortuary and specialised areas such as cosmetology, hairdressing, and restorative art.

Student embalmers also must complete an embalming record of the deceased they have looked after and are not considered for practical examination until they have completed a set number of successful embalming’s.

The embalming record details the pre and post embalming condition of the deceased person, the ratio of embalming fluids used and any further notes on medical intervention prior to death and any reconstruction used to make the deceased presentable.

When I was a student, we had to embalm at least 50 deceased who had not undergone an autopsy and twenty-five deceased who had undergone an autopsy, this was all of course under the supervision of a tutor or a professionally qualified embalmer, who had been a professional member of the institute for at least five years.

I qualified as an embalmer in 2012 at the age of 26. I am passionate about the art and science of embalming, and I always ensure that every deceased person in my care is treated with dignity, care, and compassion. I thoroughly enjoy looking after a deceased person in being able to give them back to their family looking peaceful, relaxed and at rest. I really couldn’t do any other job, its my vocation to care for the departed.

I’m based at Dallingers Independent Funeral Directors on the Wirral, Merseyside where I look after all our deceased as well as helping with the day to day running of the funeral home.

We pride ourselves on the presentation of our deceased, so much so we do not charge extra for embalming as we firmly believe in its value to the whole funeral service.

At the beginning of the Covid 19 pandemic, we continued to allow our families to visit their loved ones in the chapel of rest, we were able to allow those that may have died alone in hospital to be presented in chapel for their families

I followed normal safe working protocol when embalming deceased who had died due to Covid. Always wearing PPE over my scrubs i.e. apron, arm sleeves, gloves and an FFP mask, ensuring that no other funeral home staff entered the mortuary whilst I was working, and finally ensuring my working area and equipment was sanitised and disinfected correctly.

Those initial first few months of the pandemic were somewhat overwhelming and humbling for us all at Dallingers, as it brought so much comfort to families being allowed to spend time with their loved one up until the day of their funeral.

Embalming has been around for thousands of years in one form or another, it has been primarily carried out as an integral part of the funeral customs of the time to commemorate our dead by the way of presentation and preservation.

Most people will generally call to mind learning about the Ancient Egyptians and their grand funereal customs when they think of embalming. The elaborate coffins and tombs furnished with gold and precious jewels, not forgetting the mummification process that took weeks or even months to perform.

Embalming has come a long way since the Ancient Egyptians, with the discovery of various chemicals to slow down natural deterioration in the human body after death, and of course a greater understanding of the human body and its anatomy as well as biology and chemistry.

Although the deceased can be viewed without embalming for a limited time, the best results are when the body has been professionally embalmed.

Refrigeration will only slow deterioration so much, and can in fact, cause dehydration to the delicate facial tissues.

Embalming is a procedure using specially designed and manufactured chemicals which temporarily preserves the body and is the most successful way of removing signs of natural deterioration, disease, and trauma.

Embalming, restoration, cosmetics, and hairdressing are not meant to make the deceased look alive, but to create a comforting image of them at rest. Visiting and spending time with the deceased is a therapeutic experience for a lot of bereaved families.

Embalming affords family members time with their loved one either at the funeral home or at the deceased’s own home up until the day of funeral. It also allows for the service to be planned later should the family not be ready; if they have family traveling or if the funeral date is several weeks away due to restrictions at the crematorium or cemetery.

Sometimes when the coroner is involved the deceased person maybe be kept with the coroner’s mortuary service for several weeks until all investigations have been concluded.

Restorative art plays a major part in embalming a deceased that’s been subject to an autopsy, the embalmers aim is to ensure the family do not see any of the investigatory methods that have been made to the body.

Embalming is a process whereby the natural fluids in the body are replaced, via the arterial system, to help slow down the deterioration of the body after death, this procedure takes time and great skill to achieve the best results.

The embalmer uses their skill and knowledge to help create a more comforting memory picture of a family’s loved one, avoiding them the harsh realities of the processes that take place after death in the body, which can be distressing or even traumatic for family members to see.

An embalmer is also able to remove signs of trauma or disease from the deceased by use of specialist restorative art.

We are now seeing more and more people living longer on end-of-life care in hospitals, hospices and at home with the use of various medications and therapeutic drugs.

These drugs largely administered for pain relief, after death, speed up deteriorate at a faster rate.

Natural deterioration, i.e., fermentation and putrefaction can take place dramatically within hours after death resulting in discolouration, dehydration, purging, tissue gas, skin slip and unpleasant odours to name but a few. We must also consider the environment in which the person died as this too could influence the rate deterioration, if someone sadly died alone and was found several days later, or if someone died in a traumatic accident for example an RTC.

I, like most embalmers, will always ask the family for a recent photo of their loved one

looking well, to guide me with any cosmetics and hairdressing, and if needed, restorative art.

The embalmer will gently break down rigor within the tissues of the deceased to enable the flow of embalming fluid and to create a more restful pose, the deceased will be carefully washed, and their nails cleaned and trimmed, if need be.

Generally, but not always, depending on the condition of the deceased and cause of death, the Carotid artery will be raised to inject the embalming fluid into the arterial system and the accompanying Jugular vein will be raised to expel the blood from the body.

After completing the embalming process, the deceased will be gently washed again, carefully placed in the clothing their family has chosen for them, and any cosmetics or hairdressing carried out before being placed in their coffin or casket.

Embalming fluid consists of a mixture of preservatives, natural oils, dyes, and water to help restore a natural skin tone, and a restful appearance to the deceased. The dyes and lanolin’s in the embalming fluid remove discolouration from the skin and rehydrate the tissues.

The formaldehyde halts deterioration and dispels any unpleasant odours that may be present.

Any procedure on the living or the dead can be classed as invasive, as in reality our skin is the body’s largest organ and acts as a natural barrier protecting us from the outside elements. Just like when we have a medical procedure we sign for consent, funeral directors will also ask for the arranging client to sign for consent of their loved one to be embalmed.

Embalmers will always try to be as minimally invasive as possible when embalming a deceased person, any incisions or sutures are always discreet and minimal.

When embalming fluid is injected via the arterial system into the body, the formaldehyde reacts with the tissue proteins and forms a resin, which in turn slows down the natural occurrence of deterioration, thus enabling the embalmer to preserve and enhance the appearance of the deceased up until the day of the funeral service.

The amount of formaldehyde contained within embalming fluids is relatively small, the fluid itself is largely made up of water, natural oils, dyes, and lanolin to moisturise the skin from within.

Once the formaldehyde has reacted with the proteins of the body, there is no more formaldehyde present, thus there is no fear of formaldehyde leaching into the environment. It is however worth noting that formaldehyde does breakdown in sunlight and anaerobic bacteria present in soil also breaks down formaldehyde. There is also no evidence that the cremation of an un-embalmed body and an embalmed body detriments the environment greater than the other, as formaldehyde combusts at temperatures exceeding 150 degrees Celsius with oxygen present of course.

It’s important to remember that formaldehyde is a naturally occurring product that is present in our everyday lives. Formaldehyde is a by-product of metabolism of the living human body and is excreted via the lungs and urinary system.

We can also find formaldehyde in everyday products we use around the home; it’s even present in our furniture.

Many large suppliers of embalming products have now started to produce formaldehyde free embalming fluids for professional use. These fluids give the added reassurance to the more environmentally friendly families who still would like their loved one embalmed, that no harsh chemicals, so to speak, are used in the process of preparing their loved one. Theses fluids are made up of other preservative fluids as well as essential oils.

However, they don’t keep a deceased person looking presentable for as long as a formaldehyde product would.

Formaldehyde free products also give the operator the added assurance that they are not exposed to formaldehyde.

I hope you have found the information on embalming useful and informative. It’s a great honour to be entrusted with a families loved one, and I only ever want the best for our families, and of course, the deceased person who I am caring for.

I am proud to be a professional embalmer of the British Institute of Embalmers.

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