Embalming - is it really necessary?

“Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender sympathies of its people, their respect for the law of the land and their loyalty to high ideals."                                                                                                      Gladstone


There is little doubt that the culture of death and funerals has undergone a lot of change over the past 25 years. Like so many parts of life, access to information, the desire for greater choice and the availability of businesses to provide this has in most cases improved the grief experience for families. Whilst funeral services and how we choose to remember our dead has changed, it’s true to say our strong viewing culture has remained. Spending time with our loved ones after they have died is as important today as it has ever been. So where does embalming fit into all of this?

Sadly, it’s a reality that death is not always a dignified experience. Whether our loved ones pass away due to illness, disease, old age or trauma, their physical body, by which we relate to them as a person is, sometimes, a shadow of what it once was. As skilled professionals, returning dignity to our deceased, allowing a family to say goodbye to someone they recognise and giving them time to grieve with the body of their lost loved one is one of the most important ways we can assist a person’s grief journey. In the relatively short term history in New Zealand, embalming was just part of what funeral directors did to enable this opportunity. However, as we have shifted to the improved arrangement where families have greater control of how they wish to farewell their loved ones, it is important that this includes how we care for the deceased. The embalming process is not for everyone but it remains one of the most valuable ways we can ensure our strong viewing culture continues to provide families with a positive grief experience. If we are to make an informed decision about embalming, it is important to understand exactly what it is and the reasons it remains an important part of the funeral process in New Zealand.

The care and respect we have for the dead, and the reasoning behind embalming can be broken down into 3 main areas that relate back to the dignity of our deceased - the sanitation of the deceased, the presentation of the deceased and the preservation of the deceased. By carrying out these 3 aspects during the embalming process we restore the dignity of our loved ones.

The sanitation of the body is very simple. The reasons behind it are also very simple. This process is carried out through the arterial embalm where any foreign matter, bacterial or microbial growth is treated, as well as externally cleansing the body. Knowing that our loved one is able to have their hair washed or beneath their fingernails cleaned, possibly after not having this done while in hospital or at a rest home, can mean a lot to a family, and a simple ‘bath’ with a disinfectant soap also removes any pathogens that may be present. The importance of sanitation is to prevent our deceased from spreading or continuing to carry any kind of disease or infection that may put the public health at risk. This includes their family who are spending time with the body, as well as the funeral directors and embalmers who handle and care for our loved ones. By embalming and sanitising a body we allow a family to have safe physical contact with their loved one after they have passed away. 

Possibly one of the main reasons behind why we embalm our dead is so their families are able to see their loved ones presented in a way they would like to remember them - perhaps before the accident, before or after a long debilitating illness, or maybe even before they were unable to dress themselves in their favourite dress and apply their favourite lipstick. Presentation of our deceased is one of the main motivations behind the embalming process and why it can be of value. For a family to be able to see someone they love at peace is so important. To see someone you love look familiar is crucial. This is where the presentation side of embalming is fundamental. It may be something as simple as a hair part on the left, rather than the right side of the head. It may be red nail polish or a shirt tucked in. In traumatic death situations, the embalming process plays a huge role in terms of the presentation of the deceased. The embalming process may result in the reconstruction or restoration of a loved one’s body. Through the embalming process, we are often able to restore personal traits and perhaps offer a familiarity that may not otherwise have been possible. This allows a family to view a deceased, which is imperative to the grieving process. 

Preservation of our dead is also an important facet of the embalming process and is another good reason to make this choice. The preservation of a body is crucial in ensuring the deceased remains in the best possible condition until the funeral service takes place. Preservation permits families to view their loved one for a number of days, while maintaining the dignity of the deceased, by slowing down the natural processes of decomposition. While in some cases, these natural progressions are unavoidable and sometimes irreversible, the embalming process largely decreases the risk of this happening. Preservation can allow a family to have a positive viewing experience days or sometimes weeks after the death has occurred.

The reasons for embalming and why it remains important are many. Through the embalming process, first and foremost dignity is restored. It allows families to say goodbye in their own time and allows them to grieve with a physical presence of a body. We embalm to prevent disease and bacteria from spreading, we slow the natural process of decomposition and we allow families to remember their loved ones, as most of us would want to be remembered - as we were. 

It’s true, embalming will not be necessary in every case but we hope this article sheds a little light on how it can assist in making the grieving process a more positive one for all involved. We encourage you to have the conversation with your funeral director and your family so that you can make an informed decision. The words at the beginning of this article from William Gladstone can easily be referenced to the reasons for embalming. We embalm out of the care and respect we have for our dead and we embalm out of the care and have respect for the families of our dead.