Here is a brief history lesson on embalming in America: During the Civil War soldiers of the North were dying far from home and the families couldn’t bare the thought of their loved ones being buried in Southern soil (or so the stories go). Field Doctors began to practice techniques to preserve the bodies so they could be shipped back to their families for burials. The techniques were primitive removing the blood and then using a cocktail of alcohols to “pickle” the organs. This would kill the enzymes and slow down the natural decay of the body. The technique was modernized by Dr. Thomas Holmes(the “Father of Modern Embalming“) and used through out the war. President Lincoln was the first president to be embalmed so his body could travel by train across the states, but after the war many people thought this procedure was invasive and unnecessary and embalming faded into the back burners until the 1920’s.
During the 1920’s embalming became a thing of prestige. It was expensive and still very new but the families with the most money would hold grand funeral parties to show off their embalmed loved one in their home. The embalmer was still coming into the home and preforming the procedure (which, as someone who has seen quite a few embalming’s, finds it crazy to think about) then the body would be laid out in the family room or parlor….didn’t you ever wonder why funeral homes are called funeral “homes” and have a “parlor/viewing room”?? During the next few decades the funerals homes took over what the families had been doing for hundreds of years making it a booming industry for casket makers, car companies, florists, and of course the embalmer. Embalming fluid companies traveled the USA “certifying” funeral employees and the term embalmer became readily known and even a licensed profession thanks to boards (usually made up by prestigious funeral homes). The use of “Propaganda” that an embalmed body is safer for the public because an un-embalmed body is full of disease and will spread germs also boosted the use of embalming procedure on the middle class American. Not surprisingly this was also the time when woman were being told that childbirth was dangerous and your baby could die and get sick if you had them at home so off to the hospitals they went. Both FASLE! (But that’s for another post.)
So what DOES embalming do? Quite simply it slows down the decomposition process. Yes, I said SLOWS, but you cannot stop decomposition it will happen eventually. Embalming fluid(formaldehyde) is extremely hazardous. Embalmers where protective gear to not only protect themselves from blood borne pathogens but from the carcinogenic embalming fluid! This toxic fluid is pumped into a body for the purpose of a viewing (most funeral homes include embalming into service packages so even if there is no viewing embalming may be preformed) and then the body and all that toxic fluid is buried into the earth(along with a steel casket). That is roughly 827, 060 GALLONS of embalming fluid a year going into the earth!
Why don’t you need to embalm a body? Well to start it is not required by any state. There is no law anywhere that says you must be embalmed. Even for transportation on an airplane the body can be placed on dry ice in a special “traveling casket.” Many religions including Judaism and Muslim don’t allow embalming their dead as part of their religious traditions. The next reason? You can “preserve” a body for viewing using dry ice. It will slow down decomposition and give the body a more natural look because, hey, it is natural for a body to be un-embalmed anyway! And as a bonus you wont be adding to the pools of embalming fluid being added to the Earth.
I am just scratching the surface here. Planting seeds. Change is happening. There is so much we don’t know because we have been so detached from death and dying in America. Each week I will do my best to enlighten you and hopefully you will take the information you learn and enlighten someone else, and so on and so on. Talk about it. Question your own beliefs on death and dying. Thank you for being part of the change. And welcome to Returning Home.
One thought on “Embalming : A Quick History and Why You Don’t Need it!”
Thanks for sharing this interesting history!