Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Embalming
The public seems to have a general understanding of what embalming is- somehow the blood comes out and formaldehyde goes in. Details however are mysteriously ambiguous. Contributing to this shroud of mystery is the rehearsed textbook answer you will get when asking a mortician what goes on behind those locked doors. We are taught in mortuary school a way to tell families about embalming that will give an accurate answer without being graphic or insensitive. This is precisely what I would say in an arrangement; I’ve provided the non-answer plenty of times with my suit on. But now I am in my pajamas, so let’s get real for a minute.
How do you embalm?
Let’s review circulatory anatomy for a moment. The heart has a system of chambers and valves that, under pressure, pump blood through the body. Arteries carry fresh oxygenated blood out of the heart, veins return old blood back. Embalmers use this system to create pressure on the heart system, pump formaldehyde through the arteries, which forces the blood out of the veins.
We make a cut, typically around the collarbone area and bring up the artery- the carotid. Arteries look like straight macaroni noodles, so when you cut them they are hollow. We place a metal tube that is hooked to the embalming machine inside the artery. Then we bring up the vein- the jugular and make a cut in it so the blood can escape. Veins are thinner and more flimsy- think plastic baggie, so tools are used to help the vein dilate for better blood flow out.
There are a lot of cool things that can be done with different mixtures of embalming chemicals- I can dry them out, plump them up or use dyes that restore a life-like glow.
A separate chemical is used for what is called cavity embalming. To put it as simply as I can, there is this monster of a needle called a trocar that is inserted into the abdomen to drain all the organs. Then a bottle of cavity fluid is fixed to this needle and injects formaldehyde into the organs.
At the completion of these processes, the body is preserved (more or less) and thus embalmed.
Do you remove the eyes?
An embalmer has no reason to remove the eyes of the deceased. It would mess up the contour of the eyelid to do so. In fact, to keep a nice rounded look under the eye lid, we use what is called an eye cap. An eye cap is pretty much a plastic contact lens that is placed before embalming.
Do you remove the guts?
No reason to do this either. Most people I believe confuse an embalmer with a diener (person who does autopsies). The embalmer if fact has the opposite job; we put them back after an autopsy.
Do you hang bodies up to drain the blood?
It has surprised me how often this question has come up over the years. As I have already explained, the blood exits an open vein. To the best of my knowledge it has never been an embalming practice to hang a human body from the ceiling.
Can you embalm someone with AIDS?
The HIV virus is relatively dependent on a living system, therefore “dies” shortly after the person does. Typical lifespan of the virus is 24-36 hours in the intact body. Formaldehyde has also been proven to zap it readily. I am more concerned with Hepatitis B and MRSA when embalming due to the heightened exposure factor and prolonged lifespan in the non-living system.
We have gear that covers head to toe to create a barrier from blood, gore and chemicals. Believe it or not, embalming is relatively safe in regards to infectious diseases; there has never been a recorded transmission of the HIV infection from corpse to embalmer. Since you are not licking the embalming table, you should be just fine.
Keep in mind this information is coming to you from a modernly trained embalmer. When the HIV virus was discovered in the US in the 80’s, embalmers, as the majority of the public, were very concerned with the transmission of the virus. The fear of the unknown lead firms to elect not to embalm bodies they even suspected were infected. Needless to say this was a time of intense discrimination and hardship for families that thankfully has been remedied; however horror stories still circulate, leading to this common question.
Can I watch?
Nope. Unless you want to go to mortuary school and obtain licensing from your respective state. It’s a sensitive environment, there are hazardous chemicals and blood and sharp objects and long story short: no one wants to get sued for what may happen in there.
Can a body be un-viewable?
This is a tough issue because the answer is very subjective. There is definitely such thing as a body that cannot be embalmed well (due to decomposition or severe trauma). A poorly preserved body gets much worse over time and trust me when I say you do not want detail on that. Where that line is drawn is varies on funeral home policy and embalmer skill/confidence/schedule/ambition. Could another funeral home have viewed them? Maybe. Was the embalmer just lazy? Maybe. Was the embalmer just not good enough to fix them up? Maybe. Did the owner of the firm say it was risky to do a restoration and later get sued? Maybe. If you have ever been told you may not view a body, it was probably for the best.