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Embalming Fluid: Why You Want to Know What it is and What it Does

Many people have heard of embalming fluid and know that it’s part of preserving a body for a funeral, but what is embalming fluid? It’s used thousands of times every day even though embalming isn’t always necessary and isn’t commonly used in many other countries. Part of the reason why is because embalming fluids include ingredients that can be harmful for people, animals and the environment.
Embalming Fluid

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Understanding Embalming Fluids

There are a lot of misconceptions about what is embalming fluid and why it’s used. For starters, a family can choose whether or not they want embalming to occur, regardless of what end of life service they use. Some people don’t realize there are options, and end up paying $775 on average for embalming. 

That’s why it’s important for families to understand their funeral service options and what embalming entails so they can make the most informed decision. 

What is Embalming Fluid?

Embalming fluids are substances that are formulated to preserve a body by slowing down the decomposition process in three ways: 

Modern-day embalming with fluids was invented in the mid-1800s when there were fewer preservation options. Back then doctors also had no idea that embalming could be hazardous for the living. 

What’s in Embalming Fluids

Most embalming fluids are a mixture of chemicals, and there isn’t a standard type of embalming fluid that’s used by all funeral homes. However, there are six ingredients that are included in many embalming fluid formulas: 

  • Water (diluent)
  • Preservatives (Formaldehyde)
  • Solvents
  • Sanitizers
  • Disinfectants (Glutaraldehyde)
  • Conditioners

Not surprisingly, people often choose to use embalming fluid because they plan to have a viewing or an open casket funeral and want their loved one to look as natural as possible. In addition to preserving the body, embalming fluids can have coloring agents added to them in order to improve the appearance of a cadaver by providing a more natural looking skin tone. Deodorants can also be added to cover up any harsh smells.

The Known Dangers of Using Embalming Fluids

Rarely do families realize how dangerous and harmful embalming fluid can be, and the health risks extend well beyond funeral homes. Some of the ingredients in embalming fluids are known carcinogens, which means they can cause cancer. Other ingredients are toxic to the touch or if ingested. 

The harshest substance used in embalming fluid is formaldehyde. The concentration can be as high as 35%. Formaldehyde has been shown to cause cancer, particularly in people who work around it. It’s considered to be highly toxic and is easily absorbed by the body if it’s inhaled. 

The toxins in embalming fluid are so harsh that funeral home workers must wear special protective suits when they are handling it. Also, no one else can be in the room during the embalming process for safety reasons.

But it isn’t just people who are at risk. Animals and the environment can be heavily impacted by embalming fluids that leach out in the soil, eventually getting into groundwater. There’s growing concern that embalming fluids could get into drinking water and taint the environment for years to come. 

Formaldehyde-Free Embalming Fluid

Embalming fluid alternatives that do not use formaldehyde have been developed. However, their environmental impact is not well-known. A better option is refrigeration if you want to forgo embalming before a viewing. Families can also choose direct cremation to avoid embalming and its environmental impact. 

How Embalming Fluid Works

The embalming process is a complex undertaking that can only be performed by a licensed professional. These professionals fully understand the risks involved with handling embalming fluids and how to follow the proper OSHA requirements to remain safe.

What exactly is in embalming fluid depends on how it will be used. There are four types of embalming that serve different purposes:

  • Arterial Embalming – During this first step arterial embalming fluid is injected into the blood vessels. Once the embalming fluid has been injected it must be spread evenly by massaging it through the body. 
  • Cavity Embalming – Cavity embalming replaces the fluids that are removed from the body. 
  • Hypodermic Embalming – With hypodermic embalming a small amount of embalming fluid is placed just below the skin wherever it’s needed.
  • Surface Embalming – This skin-level embalming technique is often employed if there’s visible trauma. 

Arterial and cavity embalming are always part of the process. Hypodermic and surface embalming are done as needed. The embalmer may also use what’s called a capillary wash to prep the body prior to arterial embalming. But there are a few steps that have to occur before that happens.

Getting Permission to Embalm

Before embalming can be done, a funeral home must legally obtain the family’s permission. A standard embalming disclosure looks something like the following:

“Except in certain special cases, embalming is not required by law. Embalming may be necessary, however, if you select certain funeral arrangements, such as a funeral with viewing. If you do not want embalming, you usually have the right to choose an arrangement that does not require you to pay for it, such as direct cremation or immediate burial.”

You will likely see this disclosure in the funeral homes General Price List (GPL). A link to download our GPL is at the bottom of every page on our website. Or, you can download it directly here.

Once the funeral home has permission the embalming process can begin.

Removal of All Fluids 

The first step in the process doesn’t involve embalming fluid at all. First, the body is cleaned and drained of all fluids, including blood in the venous system.

Embalming Fluids Are Injected

Embalming fluid can be injected into the arteries and cavities after the fluids are removed. Special embalming equipment is used for the injection. In most cases, one gallon of embalming fluid is needed per 50 pounds of body weight. 

Incision Suturing

Once all of the embalming fluid has been injected, the blood vessels are tied off and the incision for the embalming fluid tube is sutured shut. 

How Long the Effects of Embalming Last

Embalming isn’t meant to preserve a body for a long period. It slows down decomposition, but it can’t stop the process altogether. The preservation effects only last one or two weeks. Even then other measures like refrigeration should be used. 

So, time is of the essence once embalming has occurred. It’s best to have the funeral services and burial or cremation within a week.

Embalming is a personal choice, and it’s good to know that families have options. Understanding what’s in embalming fluid and how the process works can have a big impact on what end of life service is chosen. If you have any questions about embalming and green options like our clean flame cremation or water cremation give us a call anytime. We’re available 24 hours a day seven days a week.

Picture of Marlaena Gonzales

Marlaena Gonzales

Funeral Director
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