Embalming isn’t quite as popular here in the UK as it is in the US or Canada, and the embalming process is a bit of a mystery for most of us. So, what is embalming, how does it work – and why embalm at all? Here’s what you need to know.


What is embalming?

Embalming is a process that preserves the body of someone who has died, delaying decomposition. It is sometimes called “hygienic treatment” or “cosmetic treatment”.

If you’d like to arrange to have a loved one embalmed, ask your funeral director. Most are either willing to bring in a specialist or qualified to perform the embalming themselves.

Some funeral directors don’t offer embalming, however, in which case you may need to look elsewhere. If so, you can compare your local funeral directors here.


How does embalming work?

The embalming process works by draining the body of blood and other fluids and replacing them with embalming fluid, which is usually made of a combination of formaldehyde, methanol, phenol, glutaraldehyde, ethanol, water and often dyes as well, to help make the skin seem rosier.

These chemicals help preserve the body by destroying bacteria that would otherwise begin the process of breaking the body down, and “fixing” cellular proteins so they can’t feed the bacteria.

Planning a natural, eco-friendly funeral? Be aware that embalming is not permitted by most natural burial grounds, as the chemicals used in the embalming process can seep into the groundwater. Find out more about natural burial here.


What is the embalming process?

So, what happens during the embalming process? Before reading further, please be aware that we will be going into some detail when describing how to embalm a body. This might be distressing to some recently bereaved readers.

If you’d prefer a more general overview of the embalming process, you can skip ahead by clicking here, and ask your funeral director to talk you through it instead.

If not, here is how embalming is done:

  1. The body is washed with a disinfectant solution and carefully massaged to relax any muscles and joints tensed by rigor mortis. Facial hair is shaved.
  2. The features are set: the eyes and mouth are closed (the techniques for this vary). Cotton padding may be placed in the cheeks to create a more natural expression.
  3. A small cut is made and a strong artery and vein are found (often the jugular vein and common carotid artery, near the collarbone). The embalmer places tubes in both: the artery is used to pump the body with embalming fluid, while the tube running from the vein allows blood to drain out. Once done, the cut is closed once more.
  4. The body is massaged again with a soapy sponge to help the embalming fluid spread evenly. The skin will begin to pinken.
  5. Next comes cavity embalming. The organs are pierced and drained of fluid using a tool called a trocar. They are then filled with extremely strong embalming fluid before the incision is closed. The embalming process is complete!
  6. The deceased is washed once more, and their hair brushed. A moisturising cream is rubbed gently into the face to keep it hydrated.
  7. Ahead of a viewing, the deceased is dressed and make-up is applied.

It’s worth mentioning here that the embalming process will be slightly different in cases where the body is damaged in some way, such as when someone dies in a car crash. Embalmers can often reconstruct, repair or conceal damage to achieve about the same effect, but the task is much more complicated.

How long does embalming take?

The entire embalming process takes between 45 minutes to an hour, plus additional time for dressing the person who has died and applying make-up.


How long does embalming last?

Embalming a body only delays the inevitable. A standard embalming will only maintain the body’s appearance for a week or so, after which additional steps usually need to be taken.

Embalmed bodies that have famously lasted a long time, such as Vladimir Lenin or Rosalia Lombardo (both still on display nearly 100 years after their deaths), are usually preserved through a combination of mummification, which can take place in certain conditions with the help of embalming, and ongoing preservation techniques.

Lenin, for example, is re-embalmed every other year, has been partially reconstructed, and wears a plastic suit sealing him in embalming fluid underneath his cloth suit.


How much does embalming cost in the UK?

The cost of embalming in the UK ranges from around £75 to £200, depending on the funeral director chosen and the amount of work required.


Is embalming required by law? Why embalm?

In the UK, there is no legal obligation to embalm anyone when they die. Viewing a body without embalming is also common. However, you are required to have a certificate of embalming if you’d like to send the body abroad.

Other than that, what is embalming for? The most common reasons for embalming are:

  • You would like to visit your loved one and would like them to look as close to their appearance in life as possible.
  • You would like your loved one to be available for viewing over a longer period of time, such as when many relatives are coming from far away.
  • Cultural or religious traditions.

Remember, embalming is a personal choice, and is never mandatory. Beware any funeral director who says it is. After death, the human body doesn’t pose any particular threat, so long as the person didn’t die of an infectious disease.

If you would like to visit them at the funeral home, the funeral director can often help your loved one look peaceful, if not lifelike, without embalming them.


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