Despite many misconceptions, embalming is not a legal requirement unless the deceased will be transported by a common carrier or outside the State of Texas. However, it is strongly recommended for any funeral service that includes an open casket viewing or visitation.
Embalming provides sanitation, temporary preservation, and more significantly, the restoration of color and life-like features to provide a natural and pleasant appearance.
The oldest account to date of preserving human remains is believed to 6,000 years old and was discovered in the Canary Islands in 1936. Preservation of remains was widely practiced by the Egyptians in the form of mummification. Arterial Embalming is believed to have originated in the Netherlands around the 17thcentury as a means of long-term preservation with little regard for restoration, compared to modern embalming techniques, which focus primarily on significant restoration and shorter-term preservation.
During the American Civil War, arterial embalming techniques evolved dramatically after Doctor Thomas Holmes was commissioned by the Army Medical Corps, with the encouragement of President Abraham Lincoln, to embalm the Union servicemen who died in order to ship their remains back home for a proper funeral rite. Techniques have changed little since then; however, the chemicals used today are highly advanced and contain active and inactive dyes, humectants, emollients and water purifiers that restore a natural and pleasant appearance of the deceased when done correctly.
The State of Texas requires Embalmers to take a specialized course of study and complete an apprenticeship in order to receive a license to practice. However, not all embalmers are created equal. Many practitioners may over use certain chemicals resulting in excessive dehydration and firming of the tissues which render a less than life-like result. An individual’s unique difference in skin tone and cause of death must be taken into account. If done appropriately, there is no need for large amounts of cosmetics, if any. However, in certain deaths such as trauma, there can be discoloration and tissue damage that must be addressed with a unique set of skills. This is where the embalmer’s special ability to apply the art of restoration and science comes in. Special pride should be taken while providing the care necessary to render as close to a life-like appearance as possible.
Today’s Embalming is both a topical and arterial process with the use of humectants, emollients and preservative chemicals. Embalming is usually done by making a single one to two inch incision along the inferior border of the right clavicle to access the right common carotid artery and right internal jugular vein. Once the vessels are raised, then a cannula is inserted into the artery to inject the solution. Drain tube or forceps are then inserted into the vein for drainage. The human body’s vascular system is a circulatory system, so as the solution enters the artery, distribution throughout the body occurs and then drains through the vein. Great care should be taken to ensure that the entire body is receiving distribution evenly. If a portion of the body does not receive adequate distribution, then another small incision is made, to locate the vessel which supplies that specified area, and is then injected with the embalming solution.
One of the most dignified rites an embalmer can render is a bath. For thousands of years, every culture under the sun has taken great care to washing their deceased. A good bath alone can provide a pleasant viewing experience and should take paramount over any embalming procedures. It is so unfortunate that proper bathing of the body has lost its significance in our industry, therefore we ensure that a everyone in our care is given a thorough bath.
Anyone with a license to embalm must be able to perform an arterial embalming. However, this does not mean that it is always done well. There are many misconceptions about why the deceased is stiff. This is not due to rigor mortis, which is the most common misconception. Rigor mortis is the result of lactic acid in the body building up, which eventually dissipates within a few hours. The real reason for the stiffness is due to excessive embalming. Formaldehyde is reacting with the water in the body, thus drawing the moisture out of the tissues. Many times, an embalmer will use too much of a highly concentrate solution, creating dehydration and excessive firming of the tissues. This also leads to tanning or a rawhide appearance, which creates the need to use heavy cosmetics to cover up, as well as adhesives like super glue to keep the eye lids and mouth shut. Unfortunately, poor embalming techniques have caused a significant push from embalming over the years. However, these occurrences can easily be avoided by having a proficient knowledge of embalming and the proper use of preservative chemicals, as well as continual care of the deceased after embalming using specialized humectants and emollients.
If a decedent has undergone an autopsy, a pathologist will usually make two main incisions, which must be addressed during the embalming process. The “Y” incision is the most invasive but allows the pathologist to examine the entire thoracic and abdominal cavity. The other large incision will be along the base of the skull from ear to ear. Please keep in mind, due to these invasive incisions, it is not recommended to view a deceased person who’s been autopsied, unless embalming and restoration are performed. During the embalming process, these incisions are addressed and most often will be unnoticed during a viewing. One of the only problems which can occur from an autopsy, is caused from the vascular system being compromised during the examination process. This requires all the main arteries to be embalmed separately, which can lead to swelling. If done correctly, the pressure of the injection should be adjusted for each vessel; something that is not widely practiced. If the embalming procedure is preformed properly, there should be no trepidation when deciding to have an open casket for viewing or service.
If arterial embalming is done well, it is not necessary nor is it pleasant for the decedent to have makeup caked all over their face - we can’t emphasize this enough! Unfortunately, many morticians continue to use a superfluous amount of cosmetics by default. However, with major trauma, there can be discoloration and large wounds that will need to be addressed. This is where the embalmers skill in restorative art comes in. A funeral home should only use cosmetics specifically made for mortuary use. However, the family may provide their own lipstick, eyeliner, mascara, and nail polish. Mortuary cosmetics are uniquely designed to absorb into and tint the skin; whereas traditional cosmetics sit on top of the face. Sadly, this is a common malpractice in most funeral homes. It takes great time, patience and ability to recreate the natural features. The inherit understanding of one’s physiognomy, gives an embalmer the leading edge in providing a family the opportunity to have a pleasant experience if they choose to have a final goodbye.