Why Embalm? An Indepth Article.


When someone dies, we need to say goodbye. That farewell may take many forms – a funeral service, a Tangihanga, a wake or a quiet gathering of friends.

By viewing the person’s body that looks at peace and natural, rather than, say, in pain, or surrounded by complex hospital equipment, has been shown to have the most benefit when mourning the loss of someone close. To ensure that family and friends can have safe access and positive experience, a body must be embalmed – sanitized, preserved and presented naturally – because nature begins to take its course very soon after death. The effects of long-term use of medications, viral and bacterial infections or post-mortem investigations can cause extreme conditions within the body and may result in rapid decomposition. Embalming enables everyone connected with the funeral – family, friends, and professionals – to take part in farewell rituals with no unpleasantness or embarrassment, and without risk to their health.

Is Embalming Compulsory?

Yes, if a body is being repatriated to another country. It is a requirement made by airlines. Otherwise, it is the recommended way of holding someone until the time of their funeral. An alternative is refrigeration. Woolertons’ Funeral Home has these facilities onsite but refrigeration may cause dehydration and discoloration, and it will not minimize the risk of infection to those coming into contact with the deceased. Some people, through their religious beliefs or personal views, state that the deceased is not to be embalmed. If a family explicitly says there is to be no embalming, Woolertons’ Funeral Home will abide by their wishes.

How Long Does Embalming Take?

Anywhere between two and six hours, depending on the condition of the body, and the requirements of the family. In some cases, it may be necessary to extend the embalming procedure over several days, especially if reconstruction is required.

Can Family Members Participate in Preparing Their Loved One?

Not in the actual embalming procedure (and there are health and safety restrictions to being in a mortuary), but family members may, if they wish, wait close by (we have a family room very close to our mortuary). A family may dress the person, apply makeup, style hair and assist with placing them in the casket.

Does Embalming Cause Pollution of Burial Grounds or the Atmosphere?

Aldehydes (the principal active ingredient in most embalming fluids) consist of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen – common elements of many substances. They are neutralized in contact with the soil, and during cremation they are totally destroyed, becoming carbon dioxide and water. Studies of groundwater in cemeteries and air samples from crematoria have shown that there is no cause for concern.

Are there Environmentally Friendly Embalming Options?

Yes, there are options that will lightly cleanse the deceased available at Woolertons’ Funeral Home.
The reason why many people reject embalming is that they are concerned about adding chemicals to the soil. What is overlooked in this case is that many toxic chemicals are used to prolong life and to ease the pain. Not removing them is leaving chemicals in the body that can potentially harm the environment.

How Is Embalming Done?

In essence, modern embalming is akin to an exchange blood solution, facial features are posed pleasantly and naturally, an artery is accessed, then disinfecting and preserving fluids are distributed through the vascular system. The organs of the thoracic, abdominal and pelvic cavities are treated directly with a specially formulated fluid injected through a small incision in the abdomen. The incisions are closed and sealed, and the body and hair are washed. At all times the deceased is treated with respect and dignity.

By the end of the process the main aims of embalming have been achieved:

The body is sanitized. Micro-organisms are rendered harmless, making the person safe to touch.
The body is preserved. Decomposition is halted for a while, enabling funeral arrangements to be made and allowing time for the family to gather for the funeral. The body is well presented. The person can be dressed in their own clothes, have their hair styled, and their natural color restored. If the person looks as good as possible (allowing for the fact of death), their family is left with a much better ‘memory picture’ than they might otherwise have. People have found this to be very helpful in the long term for their emotional wellbeing. By caring for the dead we are caring for the living. Embalmers are skilled and qualified people, working within the Codes of Ethics and Codes of Professional Conduct to standards set by the NZEA and the FDANZ. They are required to keep up with innovations and the development of new techniques. If you would like to find out more about embalming contact the New Zealand Embalmer’s Association Inc, www.nzembalmers.org.nz or phone Woolertons’ Funeral Home 07 855 1878, Philip is a member of the NZEA.

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