Embalming vs. Cremation
Morticians have been taught that embalming is the foundation of the funeral business. That without embalming … we’d be buried. During the modernization of America and at the beginning of the “American way of death”, embalming was the foundation. But we no longer exist in a modern paradigm, we exist in plurality and fragmentation with “American ways (!) of death”.
I don’t think the funeral profession’s survival depends on embalming nor do I think embalming is the pinnacle of a good funeral. England, Canada and Australia are examples of industries that exist without the centrality of embalming. And it would be very neocolonialist of us to assume that our way of embalming represents the best and only way for healthy funeralization.
Despite this preface, I do believe embalming and restoration is valuable. Here’s some short history of the practice as well as some possible benefits of embalming and restoration that I’ve observed.
The fact that my wife and I are infertile has — for some reason — made me extra sensitive to the sight of dead children … or at least that’s the reason I give for the sickness I feel when seeing a child’s corpse.
He was three years old. An all too young victim of cancer. I returned from the Children’s Hospital with his withered corpse and found my grandfather — dressed in his embalming gear — awaiting me in the morgue. That day we had a couple death calls and I had other work to do, so I left my grandfather alone to embalm this young body that had been emaciated by the cancer and the chemo. In fact, I didn’t even offer to assist my grandfather because I knew the embalming experience would put me in a horrible mood for the rest of the week.
Two hours later I stuck my head in the morgue to peak at my grandfather’s results. And what I saw was nothing like the boy I had brought back from the hospital. His skin, which had been a greenish tone, was now a healthy looking flesh tone. All the indentations on his face from the breathing machines, all the tube and machine imprints that had marked his body had been worked out by my grandfather’s expert work. Even the boy’s weight looked more natural, as the embalming filled out the weight the cancer had taken.
Two. Accidents, Cancer Emaciation and Tragedies.
For the most part, we’re able to restore various degrees of accidents, cancer emaciation and tragedies. It helps. It helps to see your loved one in a restored state.
Three. It helps make the symbol of death look pretty.
Dr. Erich Lindemann (grief management pioneer) says that a defining characteristic of persons dealing with complicated bereavement is that they never saw the dead body of their loved one. Although his observation isn’t based on any clinical studies, I think most funeral directors have recognized the weight of Dr. Lindemann’s statement.
An embalmed body helps the symbol look good. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a good thing. In fact, at times it’s a beautiful thing.
Certainly, embalming isn’t necessary AT ALL to see the dead body. But, it can help.
The emphasis on embalming the corpse for aesthetic purposes finds its popular beginning in the American Civil War. As a humane token to the grieving families of soldiers who were killed in action, an attempt was made by the armies to return the bodies home for proper burial. To avoid the cruelty of shipping home (often by train) a decomposing body, “field embalmers”, comprised of civilian physicians and some undertakers, began offering families the option of having their sons embalmed. Those that had the “bodies of their relatives returned from the war theaters … could give testimony to the effectiveness and desirability of the chemical embalming by injection” (Habenstein and Lamers 1955: 336).
While refrigeration, etc. can keep persons KIA from decomposing, embalming and restoration can allow the family to see their son or daughter in a restored condition one last time. In some circumstances, this makes embalming invaluable.
Five. When the Body Has to Wait …
On the other side of the coin, maybe there’s a person deployed in the foreign field. Or maybe one of the deceased’s sons lives in China. And the quickest they can get home is in three weeks … and they feel they MUST see the deceased. It’s possible to keep the deceased in refrigeration for three weeks unembalmed, but with a three weeks wait, embalming would be the much preferable option in this case.
Six. Sometimes DIY Isn’t the Best
There’s a lot of “death hacks” and DIY options that all but eliminate the need for a funeral director. But, this doesn’t mean funeral directors are outdated and unneeded. Like taxes, wedding planning, buying a house or even giving birth, there’s a range of symbiotic DIY options and professional involvement. While it’s usually possible to have a DIY funeral, funeral directors are beneficial during the death process.
And while it’s possible for a family to prepare a body for a home funeral, it’s not something everyone wants or can do. We’re here, if you want us. Some of us are VERY good at embalming and restoration and can help your loved look more like the person you remembered in life.
In the frustration of multitasking the details of four new calls, I decided to channel my angst into some spring cleaning. A new computer arrived yesterday, so in between the set up I threw all of our old lets-save-this-cause-we might-need-it tech in the dumpster.
After cleaning out the second floor of a tape player, two broken printers and a 30 pound monster monitor, I shifted my attention to the gallows of the basement … where ALL the old equipment goes to rest. After finding an 18 year old Compact monitor, I found the old embalming machines.
In our morgue today rests a Porti-Boy, the pinnacle of modern embalming tech.
With the Porti-Boy, you can control the pressure of the embalming fluid and the rate of flow via the little knobs on the left and right of the console.
The end of the rubber tube is where the arterial tube is inserted.
Once the incision on the deceased is made and the desired artery is raised (usually the carotid), the arterial tube is placed into the artery, the Porti-Boy is turned on and the fluid pushes out the blood via an open vein, replacing the blood with embalming fluid.
That’s how it’s done today.
Our funeral business is over 160 years old. And when we first started embalming, there was no electric Porti-Boy. In fact, there was no morgue to house the lovely embalming machine.
We came to your house. With our own equipment. By the time my grandfather was a teen, this tradition of embalming at the deceased’s house had waned. He remembers doing it a dozen times or so.
When I went down to the basement to clean out the old computers, I found the old embalming “machine” that my great grandfather would have used. It’s called an embalming gravity flask and stand … or something like that. I’ve actually used this contraption once when we lost electricity during a storm. And it worked.
You put the mixed embalming fluid in the flask, and raise the stand to find your desired pressure. The higher the flask, the more pressure it produced to push the blood out and the fluid in. My predecessors would lug this thing to the home of the deceased, put the body in the kitchen and try their best not to spill any blood. How they kept the blood from spilling (without the use of an embalming table), I have no idea.
My grandfather recounts that he and his dad used to play “who spills the least blood droplets on the floor” game. Apparently – per my grandfather’s selective memory – he would always win.
One. No such thing as DIY.
In many counties in the US, it’s difficult to get a permit to burn leaves, yet alone a human body. There are DIY funerals and green burials (which have a large degree of family and friend involvement), but when it comes to cremation you’ll need to use a cremation provider.
Many cremation providers will allow you to witness the cremation (the retort isn’t made of glass, so you won’t see anything nightmarish). Some cremation providers will even allow you to activate the retort and start the cremation.
In some European countries, it’s the custom to wait at the crematory until the cremation is finished; once complete, you take the cremated remains home with you while they’re still warm.
Two. Crestone, Colorado is the place to go …
… if you want to (legally) cremate outdoors on a pyre. The body is surrounded by juniper logs and branches and set aflame. It’s the only outdoor funeral pyre in the US and can only be used by local residents. It’s offered by Crestone End of Life Project, which asks for a $425 donation for each cremation. Per US-Funerals.com, “It takes about four to five hours for a body to burn completely, and as there is no way to separate the human ashes from the wood ash, the family receive about five gallons of ashes.”
Three. Price Standards
One of my major gripes with the funeral industry is the utter lack of price standardization. You can go to a funeral home and pay $15,000 for a funeral; and you can drive down the street to another funeral home and get the very same funeral for half the cost.
The nice thing with cremation is that there is some degree of price standardization; enough that you should be able to distinguish between a legitimately fair priced cremation and a total rip-off. If you JUST want a cremation (what funeral directors call a “direct cremation with no funeral service”), you should be able to do so for under $3,000. In some places, you can have a direct cremation for under $1,000.
Four. Pacemakers Explode
They will explode when cremated and can cause upwards of $10,000 of damage to the retort. So, pacemakers need to be removed before cremation. And don’t worry, the funeral directors/cremationists will do the removal for you.
Five. The Body Doesn’t Need to be Embalmed
As a way to pad their pockets, bad funeral directors want to make you think that embalming is ALWAYS required. It isn’t. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission’s “Funeral Rule” states explicitly that funeral directors need to disclose that embalming is your choice. And if you want cremation, there’s absolutely no reason for embalming. But, be aware, that if you use a funeral home and want a public viewing, you’ll likely need your loved one embalmed.
Six. But you Can Have Embalming, a Public Viewing and then Cremation
This option has gained some popularity because it allows for a public viewing and is less expensive than a traditional burial. With this option, you don’t need to purchase a casket (most funeral homes have rental caskets), you don’t need to purchase a grave lot (although you still can if you wish), you don’t need to purchase a vault and you don’t need to pay for the opening and closing of the grave. In Rob Lowe “Parks and Rec” voice: It can literally save you thousands .
Seven. Super Obese Persons May Cost More
“Super obesity” is the class above “morbid obesity”. Super obesity is the sad state where the victim can barely move or function. These types of obesity cases can rarely be cremated in a regular retort and will often have to be cremated in a larger, more specialized retort … which can (and often does) cost more.
Eight. You Don’t Need to Buy a Cremation Casket
Crematories (all?) require that the body is placed in some protective container before it is cremated. Our funeral home simply uses a body bag (a body bag that comes at no charge to the family). In fact, funeral directors are breaking the “Funeral Rule” if they tell you that state and/or local law require a casket for cremation.
Nine. Bodies are not cremated together.
There isn’t a two for one special. One at a time.
Ten. This is a bad idea:
WARNING: This post contains photos of the embalming process. If you are sensitive to photos of deceased persons and bodily fluids, please do not continue reading. The purpose of this post isn’t to salaciously satisfy your morbid appetite. My hope is that it can create a better (albeit fundamental) understanding of the process of embalming.
All of these photos have been sourced from the YouTube video “Modern Embalming Practice” by German embalmer Thomas Müller.
If you are interested in the tools we use in embalming, you can read this post: 10 Things We Use When Embalming.
Some of these photos may be disturbing. All of these photos have been sourced either from the internet.
1. This is a needle injector, which is effectively used for mouth closure. We use this to set the features before we embalm. Once the mouth and eyes are closed (see number 2), then we can think about starting arterial embalming.
The needles are the shiny silver things attached to the shiny gold things (we only use two at a time):
One needle is anchored into the maxilla and another needle is anchored into the mandible. The wires that are attached to the needles are then twisted together until the mouth is “cranked” shut.
2. These round spiked spheres are called “eye caps”. They are placed under the eye lids and essentially grab the eyelids and hold them in place, keeping the eyes closed.
You can also use these as very small Frisbees.
3. These are examples of the scalpels that we use for embalming. They are sharp.
Many embalmers use the right carotid artery for embalming and the jugular vein for drainage of the blood. We use the scalpel to cut the neck and find said artery and vein.
The scalpels can also be used to cut other things, like steak and pork. But, it’s probably not good to use a used embalming scalpel on your steak. That’s an amateur move.
4. This is an Aneurysm hook.
We use this little guy to raise the artery and the vein out of the neck.
5. The arterial tube gets slipped into the incised artery.
6. Embalming Machine (Drum roll please)
You can also use embalming machines for various other interests. Like a fish tank / plant holder. Or a punch bowl.
7. The drainage tube is slid into the jugular vein. When the embalming machine forces the embalming fluid into the arterial system, that fluid forces the blood out via the veins and the drainage tube.
8. Arterial embalming only reaches the parts of the body that are connected to the arterial system. The intestines, stomach, lungs, etc. are left relatively untouched. We then remove all the content of the stomach, lungs, etc. through a long needle like suction thingy called a “trocar”.
9. After the stomach, lungs, etc have been cleaned out, we then inject cavity fluid. After that has been done, we screw in a trocar button in the hole left by the trocar.
10. Finally, during this whole process, we use gloves. I prefer my latex gloves in the “Fierce Beige” color because it matches my personality.