Living With Dying articles

What's the deal with embalming? - online extras

By Leah Carey
Oct. 11, 2016

A common misconception is that dead bodies need to be embalmed, according to Lee Webster, president of the National Home Funeral Alliance.

She said that this assumption arises from the belief that removing the blood makes the body safer. “It’s a total fallacy,” Webster said.

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, to embalm is “to treat (a dead body) so as to protect from decay” or “to fix in a static condition.”

Or, as Webster said, “It’s removing fluid from the body and replacing it with chemicals and fluids that last for a few weeks.”

These days, the chemicals are frequently formaldehyde-based, a substance that has been declared a carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency. Despite the risk to embalmers, it is still a regular part of operations at most funeral homes.

Bringing the boys home

Embalming was still a relatively new technology when the Civil War was being fought in 1861 to 1865. When Union fighters were killed on the battlefield, families wanted to get their sons and husbands home to the northern states for burial, according to Webster.

When President Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, his body was taken on a 13-day train journey from Washington, D.C. to his burial spot in Springfield, Illinois. At each of the 11 stops, his body lay in state so the public could pay their respects.

“Abraham Lincoln was embalmed not once, but six times in a two week trip,” Webster said. “With him I think they were using zinc oxide – all these combinations they were experimenting with, and doing it right on the field.”

Around the same time, Webster said, people started choosing to die in hospitals rather than at home.

“They sold the whole picture – death doesn’t happen at home, die in a sterile place,” Webster said. With the precedent of Abraham Lincoln, embalming came into vogue.

“It became something rich folks were doing, and then the general population wanted to do it,” Webster said. “What they originally did was take the body to a separate place, embalm it, then bring the body back to the person’s home. It meant they could have longer periods of mourning.”

Gradually, people forgot that it had ever been done another way.

“That all just sort of morphed and we as a nation came to believe that bodies had to be embalmed in order to have a funeral,” Webster said. “We thought the state requires it, and the state never has.”

Pink cheeks

Because they believe it is required, many people have their loved ones embalmed as a matter of course.

“Americans tend to believe it’s for health reasons, but the point is that if someone is infectious, the last thing we want to do is drain their fluids and put them in our septic systems,” Webster said.

Funeral homes, however, often require embalming for a funeral that involves an open casket, Webster said.

“They insert a red dye that makes white people look pink … pretty plump pink cheeks,” she said. “They’re creating a memory picture. The industry wants to create a look so everyone walks by and says, Doesn’t she look like she’s still alive?”

“Embalming is the only thing that families can’t do at home. And with most home funeral families, it’s not something we want,” Webster concluded. “We’re okay with people looking dead. That’s the point.”

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